If you tweet about your Thanksgiving meal preparations Thursday, don’t be surprised if you get a response from salmonella. The Oregon Health Authority has launched a parody twitter account with the voice of the salmonella bacteria, offering tongue-in-cheek commentary and tips on how to ward off the unwanted guest at your holiday table.
The approach is part of a growing trend in public health messaging experimenting with humorous or creative ways to inform the public about health risks without getting lost in the crush of social media.
“Humor is always a risky way to go, but it is an evidence-based way of communication,” said Claire Tollefsen, a digital media specialist who is running the salmonella account for the Oregon Health Authority. “It is a great approach to capture attention and to help shine a light on something that maybe people see as otherwise mundane or maybe not that important.”
The campaign hit in the midst of a national outbreak of salmonella linked to turkey that has sickened at least 164 individuals in 35 states including Oregon. One death has been reported in California. Last week, Jennie-O Turkey Store Sales in Barron, Wisconsin, recalled more than 91,000 pounds of raw ground turkey due to salmonella concerns.
Salmonella is considered widespread in poultry, but infections can be avoided through safe food-handling measures and proper cooking. About 400 to 500 cases of salmonella are reported in Oregon each year. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the bacteria cause 1.2 million illnesses nationwide leading to 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths.
Oregon’s salmonella Twitter account was modeled after an Australian campaign called “Melanoma likes me,” in which public health officials tracked social media messages and responded on behalf of melanoma to popular hashtags or geographically linked images.
“Our idea was to do the same kind of thing,” Tollefsen said. “We are following these conversations and diving in at an opportunity when we can create that positive behavior change.”
The account uses Twitter’s geographic locators to find when people are tweeting about Thanksgiving or keywords, such as food safety, turkey or pumpkin pie. Salmonella — or Sal to his friends — responds to those tweets with humorous comments. OHA plans to run the account through the holidays and then resume tweeting during the grilling season in the summer.
“Sal is definitely going to be a seasonal guy,” Tollefsen said, confirming Sal’s gender. “You work on him for a couple of months; he develops a bit of a personality.”
Personality hasn’t typically been the strong suit for public health officials who generally communicate serious warnings about health threats. They don’t like to make light of the situation. But in the age of social media, the standard public service announcements, however important, however well-intended, just aren’t standing out. That’s led to an increasing number of public health agencies trying more creative and humorous approaches.
In 2006, when the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention wanted to reach 24- to 64-year-old males, a demographic notorious for not seeking help, it created the ManTherapy.org website. The site features videos from Dr. Rich Mahogany, an amalgam of male stereotypes who urges men to come in for a man-to-man chat about their mental health.
“Life throws you curveballs, sometimes right at your manhood,” Mahogany says.
It was a risky approach.
"The idea of using humor as a state employee and content expert was terrifying," said Jarrod Hindman, the suicide prevention unit manager. "But we also knew because we did some market research that humor was a great way to catch the attention of everybody, but especially men."
Using humor, Hindman said, puts people at ease, making an uncomfortable topic a little more comfortable.
"I think it’s one technique, one of probably many, that helps break through some of the barriers that people put up," he said.
CDC took a similar approach in 2011 with a public health campaign to promote disaster preparedness providing information on how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse. The campaign was the brain-child of Dave Daigle, associate director for communication in the CDC’s Office of Public Health. During a Twitter chat about the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan, Daigle saw a lot of questions pop up about zombies. That was stuck in his mind when his team was preparing public service announcements to help prepare for a busy hurricane season.
"What you would do for zombies would prepare you for hurricanes and tornadoes and floods," Daigle said. "We never really did very well with the young demographic; if we did something about a zombie apocalypse, people might engage and they might read it."
The campaign went viral. Three days after the initial Zombie blog post went live, it was receiving more than 60,000 views an hour.
"You’re talking about an agency like CDC; we’re thought of as very conservative and science-based and all of a sudden, we’re talking about the zombie apocalypse," Daigle said. "That dynamic really helped us a great deal. No one expected it to come from us."
While many enjoyed the whimsy, Daigle said he heard from many of the old-guard CDC employees who had been at the agency for years, even some retirees, complaining about the approach. Many complained the agency was wasting money on zombie nonsense, instead of doing more serious work. In fact, the total cost for the campaign was a mere $87, the cost of the stock art they purchased for the original blog post.
Daigle’s team had plans to ramp up the campaign even further but were told by agency officials to pull back.
"There is that pushback, especially in an area like public health where we haven’t used humor a lot," he said.
Communications experts say there are potential downfalls to taking a lighthearted approach.
"We sometimes see that people may take those issues less seriously," said Ann Christiano, director of the Center for Public Interest Communications at the University of Florida.
When researchers from West Virginia University tested the zombie apocalypse tools against more serious messages, they found the tongue-in-cheek stance to disaster communication tended to trivialize the issue and people were less likely to take the recommended actions.
Christiano contrasted the CDC’s approach with a campaign from the Prostate Cancer Foundation featuring Branko the Prostate Czech, a burly, tracksuit-clad Eastern European who wants to give men a digital rectal exam. See your doctor, he warns, before you get Czecked.
"The thing that they’re making fun of, that they’re making less serious, is the fear of getting a prostate exam," Christiano said. "That’s something you want to be less serious about. It’s a really smart and focused way to use humor."
Still, Christiano praised the Oregon salmonella campaign as a creative way to promote food safety without resorting to scare topics.
"There’s abundant research that says that people tend to check out of messages that make them feel afraid and make them feel sad, particularly this time of year," she said. "It’s great to see a public health department experimenting with other emotions."
John Trybus, a social strategist with the Center for Social Impact Communication at Georgetown University, said the approach is creative and unexpected, which should help it stand out more than the traditional cautionary tales of people who got sick.
"There is just an insurmountable amount of communications and clutter that’s out there; it’s arguably harder than ever to capture someone’s attention," he said. "So what folks working on public health messages really need to think about is how to break out from that clutter. And humor can absolutely be a good way to try to do that."