IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Humanizing Government Is a Public Outreach Superpower

Government agencies of all sorts had to adapt their public communication strategies to address the public health crisis of COVID-19. Those who did so with a human approach found a lasting connection with their audiences.

a digital illustration of people accessing COVID-19 info online
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many government agencies to adjust their messaging to bring public health and safety into their dialog – even if it was not previously part of their strategy.

How to effectively incorporate public health messaging was a topic of discussion last week at the 2021 Government Social Media Conference, along with topics like crafting social media policy and dealing with Internet trolls.

In a panel called “Public Health Social Media Wins and Best Lessons,” Jason Haug and Kevin Parent from Ottawa Public Health were joined by Elizabeth Hart of the Tennessee Department of Health to share their experiences about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their messaging strategies.

During the panel, Hart addressed the overlap between public health and other government functions, stressing that the public health department should be included in any campaign to improve public outreach.

She expanded on this topic when the panel discussed the role of public agencies that did not previously work in the public health field but now had to speak on it and communicate these important messages. Hart emphasized that public health messaging, especially as it pertains to the pandemic, has a global reach.

“Here’s the thing that I think a lot of people probably realize this year during the pandemic,” Hart stated. “Public health touches every single industry … I’m 99.9 percent sure that anything you are doing is going to be somehow linked to public health.”

She advised agencies to increase focus on engagement and becoming the trusted source in the community — ideally, prior to a public health crisis like COVID-19.

Hart and Haug acknowledged that the public health messaging created in response to COVID-19 has positively impacted some areas of public health. For example, an increase in vaccination programs has contributed to a milder flu season in 2020.

In contrast, some areas of public health have been stressed further because of the pandemic. As Haug described, mental health issues and substance abuse have been on the rise in the past year. Hart’s department has been working on public health campaigns related to opioid abuse prior to the pandemic but an increased number of overdoses in the past year heightened the need.

“A lot of those things did not stop when the pandemic hit,” Hart stated. “In fact, in certain places it actually heightened … One of the things that we did on our social media is making sure that we intertwine some of those messages with the COVID messages.”

One reason the opioid campaign was very successful was the personalization of it. The campaign showcased faces and stories of individuals impacted by opioid addiction in Tennessee, humanizing the issue as well as the department.

Ottawa Public Health also experienced a traffic increase when implementing human messaging by way of a now viral Twitter thread. The thread addressed guidelines for gathering in a group, but Ottawa Public Health clarified that further with some lighthearted humor.

“It’s messaging that people need,” emphasized Parent. “And as Elizabeth has been pointing out all along, when you are the standout, when you are the ones out there doing real, genuine human messaging, people are going to respond to it and grab onto it.”

Matt Turner, social media specialist for the National Park Service (NPS), shared a similar message in his keynote speech during the conference. The speech addressed ways to bring humor and humanization to the messages that a department shares, emphasizing the importance of providing valuable information to visitors.

When the pandemic hit, Turner had to shift his tone to have safety and public health at the forefront of the organization’s messaging, including the CDC’s most recent guidance and messages on physical distancing. According to Turner, safety has always been a key part of NPS’ messaging, but that went further in 2020 to incorporate CDC guidance and emphasize the need to recreate responsibly. Messages that had previously included advice to keep a safe distance from bears, were adapted to include advice about keeping a safe distance from humans as well.

“We always want to work to maintain a presence,” Turner stated, “but also take a moment to make sure we are present in a meaningful way.”

Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.