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Environmental Factor, May 2012

Facebook and Twitter drive NIEHS social media expansion

By Ian Thomas

Christine Flowers

Since her arrival to NIEHS in 2004, Flowers has expanded OCPL’s informational suite to include new mediums such as social media and YouTube, (http://www.youtube.com/user/TheNIEHS?ob=0&feature=results_main)  in addition to conventional news services such as press releases, fact sheets, and a monthly newsletter. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ed Kang

Kang points out that social media also provides a number of benefits to NIEHS personnel, such as employee news, schedules, and event information, plus a wealth of opportunities for research publicity. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

With many Americans now turning to such services as Facebook and Twitter for the bulk of their news and information, NIEHS continues to expand the reach of its environmental health message by adapting it for the ever-exploding world of social media.

“People throughout the world are realizing that their health is linked to their environment and they want more information about this connection,” said Christine Flowers, director of the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL). “So, we’re taking our research results to the public in a way that’s easy to understand and also easy to access. Social media is simply where people go for information. We need to be there, ensuring that accurate and reliable information is available.”

Since the launch of its Twitter page (http://twitter.com/#!/niehs)  in December 2010, NIEHS has accumulated more than 3,100 followers, while its Facebook page, (http://www.facebook.com/nih.niehs)  launched in December 2011, currently draws more than 4,000 visits per week.

“When people wake up in the morning, they’re not reading the local paper for the news or even going to their favorite website,” said Ed Kang, a public affairs specialist for OCPL and a social media aficionado. “They’re checking their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds to see what’s going on in the world. Therefore, as content generators, we have to have information ready for them to find when they get there.”

Getting to the point

One of the things that make social media so appealing is its abbreviated format. In the case of Twitter, user posts, referred to as tweets, may not exceed 140 characters. That puts pressure on communicators to write content that is both enticing to the reader and also concise.

“In today’s world of information, we only get a few seconds to capture someone’s attention with our message,” Kang noted.

Another upside to social media is the ability of its content to go viral through posting and reposting by direct and secondary followers.

“Direct followers are a great metric for measuring our reach, but it’s those secondary followers that show us the true potential of our efforts ,” Kang explained. “Those who follow us directly are always looking for our content, but it’s the people who follow them, the ones who only get our information through second-hand “like” and retweet features, that we want to connect with.”

At present, NIEHS has more than 700,000 secondary followers on Twitter.

A future on the go

As sales of smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and portable information devices continue to skyrocket, thus making mobile app content and social media infinitely more accessible to users, Kang is adamant that NIEHS must tailor both its message and its delivery methods to evolve with the times.

“Every day the American public is inundated with news stories about various diseases, cancer-causing agents, and countless other topics that leave them asking questions, and we can’t expect them to simply seek out our website for the answers,” said Kang. “Through social media, however, we can put that information right in front of them, so our latest research is just a hashtag away.”

(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist with the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)




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