In our years of public health communications, we’ve worked on projects for a variety of initiatives from vaccination to heat safety, disease control and prevention, and more. And whether the goal is increasing awareness of public health initiatives, driving content to your website or community partner sites, or encouraging phone calls, one thing has become clear–with usage continuing to grow and new platforms popping up seemingly daily, social media is a cost-efficient way to reach your various target audiences.  

But unlike more traditional mediums, like radio, television, or even display ads, social media also invites conversation. In public health communications, opening yourself up to the comments (and opinions) of the audiences you serve can seem daunting … but don’t count social media out because of it.   

Here are our top 5 tips for harnessing the power of social media engagement in your public health communications strategy. 

1. Don’t be afraid of engagement.  

Engagement and two-way conversation are what make social media “social”, after all. The ability to connect with others in real-time is a big part of why 90% of US adults are social media users. So, while it can be tempting to turn off the comments for individual posts on platforms that allow it, especially when you’re posting about potentially controversial or charged topic areas, this should not be the norm.  

Even in situations where misinformation can run rampant (we’re looking at you COVID-19), it’s important to remember that the people sharing these types of comments often make up a loud minority and are unlikely to sway others. This is especially true for those followers who already consider your organization a trusted authority on public health communications.  

2. Think beyond likes, comments, and shares 

Seeing more link clicks and video views than likes, shares, and comments when measuring your social media engagement? It isn’t necessarily a sign of poor performance. And it doesn’t mean your message isn’t getting out there. Even these more “passive” engagement metrics that aren’t as visible in the News Feed show people are paying attention. 

This is especially true in the world of public health, where some topics such as addiction can have associated stigmas. Remember that people’s family and friends will see if they interact with your posts. For some users, this may prevent them from liking or commenting to protect themselves from judgment.  

3. Be ready to answer questions 

Actively engaging with followers and addressing any questions or concerns in a timely manner (think within 24 hours) will make them feel more in touch with you, especially during an emerging public health crisis. It’s also a helpful way to boost engagement and your organization’s authority across your social media accounts.  

Comments and direct messages won’t always come through while your team is in the office. In fact, it’s common for them to come in after hours or on the weekend. But that doesn’t mean keeping up with the conversation has to be overwhelming. We recommend developing a social media FAQ of commonly asked questions to streamline responses and ensure a consistent tone, especially when multiple social media managers are responsible for your public health communications. 

4. Don’t feed the trolls (or fight with them)  

There will always be people who disagree with guidance from public health officials. And when this happens, it can be tempting to correct them in the comments, but do so with caution. If someone shares an honest concern or inaccurate information, you can always point them to a trusted resource to learn more about the issue. However, correcting the same user repeatedly, about something like vaccine safety, on the other hand, is unlikely to change their opinion. 

In situations where you do respond, be careful to avoid coming across as defensive when addressing any misconceptions. This means being aware of how your message’s tone could be perceived by different users. It’s also important to avoid deleting posts unless they violate your community guidelines (i.e., explicit language, slander, hate speech, etc.) as this can be seen as a form of censorship.   

5. Join conversations to position yourself as a resource 

Hashtags don’t only help improve searchability and engagement for your own content, they also help you find larger conversations to join (yes, even for public health). What are people talking about when it comes to the issues impacting their community? Dig in and find out. Maybe there’s a question or two that keeps popping up. Creating content that answers these questions can help take your social media strategy and audience engagement to the next level.  

Ready to increase social media engagement rates across your public health organization’s presence? Include clear calls to action and make sure you tailor your content to each social media platform’s algorithm for maximum success. This means trying to avoid flyers and assets formatted for other mediums wherever possible. Think about what makes each platform so engaging when you’re personally scrolling through and lean in.