The Conversation is Happening Without You

One of the key points that I make in my presentations that I haven’t done a very good job of articulating on the blog is about conversations. And, frankly, that’s a shame because understanding the nature of how our publics live is key to success in working with them.

Right now, there is a conversation going on, somewhere, that involves you. It might have to do with novel influenza or eating healthy or getting prepared for an emergency or even your agency specifically. Right now. That shouldn’t be surprising, though. People have always talked about topics that reference your agency or your agency’s work. What’s made that something we should be aware of, though, is social media. No longer do they have that discussion over a kitchen table or at the bus stop; now it’s online, and it’s almost never a one-to-one conversation. It’s a one-to-many people conversation. And then many-to-many. And who’s in that many? Could be just about anyone.

Remember though, if you choose not to participate on social media, those conversations are still happening.

And according to a newly released study, those conversations that people are having behind your back? They’ve got real consequences. Take, for example, the current debate about vaccinating children. Even with an abundance of evidence that vaccines are safe and effective, and the only good study connecting vaccines to autism has been found to be almost completely made up, more and more families are modifying the vaccine schedule or altogether refusing the vaccines. Researchers and public health authorities have been struggling to figure out why, and this study by Emily Brunson in Pediatrics has offered up a compelling reason.

It’s because of our social networks.

At least 95% of parents in both groups indicated that they had consulted their “people network” for insight into making vaccination decisions. Parents reported they paid the most attention to their spouse or partner’s opinion. Pediatricians were next in line, followed by friends and relatives.

Here’s why that’s important: 72% of nonconformers’ [ed. note: people who didn’t follow the CDC recommendations] friends and relatives advised them to disregard CDC recommendations compared with just 13% of conformers’ friends and family members.

(snip from this article in Time Magazine)

To take it out of study language, people have questions about vaccines. Questions that we in public health either ignore, blow off, or quote some study language, and essentially leave unanswered. So, folks continue to ask the questions of their friends, family and social circles. And the people who answer back are those who are opposed to the recommended guidelines.

Now, relating this back to social media, these conversations only used to happen over kitchen tables, and at the bus stop. Now they’re happening everywhere online. And that’s the vector. That’s how vaccine schedule alteration and refusal exploded from a relatively fringe movement into a never-ending series of measles and whooping cough outbreaks.

Because those conversations were going on behind our backs. Because we ignored them. Because we didn’t engage with them. We believed that our science spoke for itself, when all it really did was cover up the sound of real questions and conversations.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

Nice post, Jim. I never thought about HHS / CDC having dedicated staff to participate in the online conversations happening informally in places like Yahoo! or Berkeley Parents Network or Circle of Moms…but your post sparked that idea…you could pick the Top 20 sites based on traffic and have someone who looks for those conversations and points people back to the official info. Might not be a bad pilot program.

It makes me want to title your post “The Conversation is Happening Without You (But It Needs You!)”.

Profile Photo Dave Hebert

Indeed, Jim — it was much easier to ignore these conversations when they couldn’t be heard. Now that they’re happening out where the whole world can see, we in gov. are having to convert from faceless-monolith mode to engaged-customer-service mode. As Andrew suggested, we now have to meet people where they are.

The great news is that many gov. agencies are going all in on honest-to-goodness, platform/location-agnostic customer service.

Profile Photo Jim Garrow

Thanks so much for stopping by, guys!

Andrew, I love your idea; it wouldn’t have to be constant, but what an effect it must have to ask a question on some random site and have an official government response, “hey, I was just stopping by and saw your question, here’s a great place to learn more…”

And Dave, I totally agree, we’re headed in the right direction, but we’ve got a long way to go. I wish the locals (like my agency!) would do more. The feds are setting a great example, we just need to catch up!