The NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison (OCPL) provides a wide range of resources and services to promote the groundbreaking work of institute scientists and grant recipients. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the use of social media.
“Social media has undergone a massive transformation in the last decade — from being a platform where people share common interests, to becoming a full-fledged news source for millions of people around the world,” said OCPL Director Christine Bruske Flowers. “As science communicators, it’s our job to take our message where the public can find it. Today, that’s on Facebook and Twitter.”
Bigger not always better
According to Flowers, organizations tend to establish a footprint on as many social networks as possible to maximize message reach. That is not always a wise strategy, in her opinion.
“Maintaining an effective presence on any social network requires time and diligence,” Flowers said. “If an agency has the resources to manage multiple networks, then it can certainly be beneficial to do so. Our institute, with a relatively small social media staff, has found greater success by being intentional with our posts on fewer networks.”
“Right now, Facebook is the eight-hundred-pound gorilla of the social media world,” Flowers said. “We’ve found our Facebook page to be extremely effective at sharing things like news updates, information on joining research studies, and health education resources. By contrast, Twitter and LinkedIn are excellent platforms for engaging scientists and those who receive federal research grants.”
Joining communities, not billboards
Another key element of a successful social media strategy is to be mindful of these distinctions when posting content. “Every social network represents a unique community of people with their own language, cultures, and way of interacting,” said NIEHS Digital Content Coordinator Sheena Scruggs, Ph.D.
“What works on Facebook, for instance, rarely works on Twitter, which rarely works on Snapchat or Instagram. Many users get annoyed when social media managers fail to respect those differences, which inevitably leads to a whole lot of unfollows.” The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to spend time getting to know each platform and its members, she explained.
“Hashtags are a huge part of Twitter,” Scruggs said. “They’re how users follow what’s being said in the collective conversation about topics like autism or women’s health. To that end, we’ve begun using our own hashtags, like #NIEHSfunded and #NIEHSresearch, to help our followers access our content.”
OCPL is increasing visual elements of its content by generating custom graphics for news stories and scientific papers. The office also uses the Reddit platform holding Ask Me Anything sessions with scientists and grant recipients (see story).
A mission to serve
Regardless of network, etiquette, or audience, the common theme uniting the NIEHS social media footprint is OCPL’s commitment to sharing quality, well-crafted information based on first-rate science.
“At the end of the day, the mission of our institute is to better understand how the environment affects people so we can help them enjoy healthier lives,” Flowers said. “Providing our followers with daily content that is timely and relevant is one of the many ways we can help them do that.”
(Ian Thomas is a public affairs specialist with NIEHS OCPL and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor.)