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Nuts about social media at HHS

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The Health and Human Services Department is tapping some of the same social media tools used to spread the word about salmonella-tainted peanuts to handle the budding pistachio crisis.

Already, the Food and Drug Administration’s recall twitter feed, which helped to quickly spread information about the nearly 4,000 products recalled during the peanut crisis, is tweeting about recalled pistachio products.

Other tools HHS used during the salmonella outbreak in peanuts could come into play as the department shares information about pistachios, Andrew Wilson, a Web manager for HHS’s Web Communications and New Media division, told Federal Times today.

I spoke to Wilson following a speech at an American Public Health Association event about using social media (like Twitter,  YouTube, blogs, widgets and social networking sites) to respond to crises (like salmonella outbreaks or terrorist attacks).

During the peanut crisis, HHS used the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s existing network of social media tools to spread the word for FDA on peanut product recalls, Wilson said in his speech.  This interagency collaboration allowed the department to vastly and quickly increase the reach of information also being pushed out through traditional media campaigns, he said.

As the crisis progressed, the department created more tools for FDA to use. It set up a blog to centralize information on the crisis. It also created a self-updating product recall widget for information providers and average citizens to embed on their own Web sites to inform readers on the latest recalls, Wilson said. 

Wilson personally went on to Twitter and began “tweeting” with those discussing the outbreak, sharing links to CDC and FDA information. He has approximately 1,000 followers today, many of whom re-tweet what he’s posted, reaching an audience of tens of thousands, he said. This network of followers can be tapped in the future to spread information about other crises, Wilson said. As can the nearly 3,000 followers of FDA’s product recall Twitter feed.

After his speech, Wilson told me that while the strategy for the pistachio outbreak is still being developed, the social media outreach done for the peanut crisis is not a one-off event. Rather it is a new approach to keeping the public informed in the spaces citizens typically go for information, he said. The department is even “crowdsourcing” for ideas on how it can use social media here.

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