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Is there a role for social media in educating decision-makers?

September 10, 2012

We’ve often explored how social media is used for raising awareness. This week I’ve invited Lauren Dobson-Hughes from the Canadian Cancer Society to host a special edition #hcsmca focusing on the potential role of using social media to educate decision-makers when advocating for change.

By Lauren Dobson-Hughes @laurendhughes

Picture of Lauren Dobson HughesAs advocates, many of us have turned from raising awareness of the existence of our causes to pushing for tangible actions to solve our problems. This is particularly the case for cancer. While some cancers are certainly not widely-known or understood, we generally grasp that many people are affected by the group of diseases we call cancer. Everyone knows someone touched by cancer. After all, 186,400 Canadians will be diagnosed this year, and 75,700 will die from the disease.

Advocating for action comes in three parts:

  • First, you need to convince decision-makers that a pressing problem exists. Essentially, we need to educate MPs, MLAs, MPPs, city councillors, and anyone else who holds the purse-strings or the power.
  • Secondly, they must know that they need and have the power to address this problem.
  • Thirdly, convince them that the solution you’re proposing is the correct one.

On Sept 12, the special edition #hcsmca chat will mainly tackle the first part of this process – educating the decision-makers.

Most people go into politics because they care. They care in different ways, and the solutions they envisage are different, but most elected officials want to help. To do so, they need to know there’s a problem. It helps to let them know that the problem is widespread and that their community cares and is affected by it. This is where social media can help you convey and magnify your message.

Case Study – Canadian Cancer Society’s indoor tanning campaign

Our indoor tanning campaign uses social media extensively to educate decision-makers on the dangers of tanning beds for under-18s. The stats are clear and simple: You have a 75% elevated risk of skin cancer if you use a tanning bed before the age of 35.

There are compelling photos we can transmit via social media, and the solution is easy to remember: Ban under-18s from using tanning beds.

Canadian Cancer Society's indoor tanning awareness campaignWith this campaign, we’ve used social media tools more in isolation – a hashtag, tan-free graduation ceremonies parents share on Facebook, and online petitions. We even purchased a UV light camera that shows skin damage caused by sun exposure. We give young people their photos, and they post them to their Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest accounts.

Social media also makes decision-makers more accessible. You might not be able to get an appointment with your MLA, but you can tweet your tanning photo to your MLA.

Case Study – Drug Access

Educating decision-makers has proven harder with issues where the topic is technical or involves explaining policy with which the MP may not be familiar. For example, the issue of drug access hasn’t, so far, been a good fit for social media. It’s complex, involves numerous players, and has no nicely packaged solution. Decision-makers are aware Canadians’ access to medication is insufficient and patchy, but the solutions are a web of complicated policy options. We’ve boiled down our approach and outlined key criteria, but fitting them into 140 characters on Twitter or a Facebook post isn’t easy.

For this topic, we likely need an integrated multi-platform campaign, to increase volume and make the issue more noticeable. Perhaps an online Day of Action coupled with in-person visits to MP’s offices. This type of campaign usually takes time, organization and effort.

Can social media get results like face-to-face interactions do?

Having said all these lovely things about the value of social media, of course, it isn’t a magical panacea. Perhaps I’m not thinking creatively enough, but I haven’t yet found that it can replace the face-to-face, personal relationships with decision-makers that are essential to educating.

I have personal relationships with people I’ve met through social media – people I’ve never met but who enrich my life enormously. In some cases, I’ve transitioned online friendships to real-life friendships. Yet it’s usually not possible to develop these online relationships with decision-makers. For a start, they tend not to spend as much time on Twitter as I do!

With MPs, the face-to-face contact, the reading of body language, and the ability to have a nuanced, sustained conversation, matters. It’s also a private conversation, so you can discuss touchy topics and be more open with each other. For folks who haven’t quite developed their social media ‘voice’ yet, it can also be a better way to convey authenticity and value.

So, this is the quick overview of the benefits and limitations of using social media to educate decision-makers and advocate for change. On Sept. 12, let’s discuss:

  • T1 What are the benefits and limitations of using social media to educate decision-makers?
  • T2 What examples have you seen of successful, or unsuccessful, social media education campaigns?

Now it’s your turn! Chime in with examples, suggestions and personal experiences.

Link to the transcript.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2012 5:59 pm

    Thank you Lauren for your thought (and idea) provoking post!

    To address the question you pose in your title, “Is there a role for social media in educating decision-makers?” I would respond by saying, “It depends”.

    In research we have been attempting to engage decision makers using a process called, “Knowledge Translation” (http:\\e\29418.html) or KT. This concept, originated by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is a mandatory component of any funded study.

    My colleague Melanie Barwick has been working in the area of KT for a number of years, offers training courses ( on KT and is also a strong advocate of using social media strategies in knowledge translation activities.

    Your case study on drug access reminds me of work done in the 1990s by Louise Binder (http:\\en\about\council\Binder), a Toronto-based AIDS activist who was instrumental in changing the regulations on medication approval and release by the Canadian federal government Health Protection Branch. Her efforts were done largely without the use of technology.

    As someone who has been involved in the health advocacy movement for over fifteen years and an earlier adopter of technology I cannot dispute the benefit of the latter. Technology, in particular email, was used in the AIDS movement to exchange information about treatment and strategies around advocacy. However, its use to engage decision makers was limited by their (lack of) adoption. Back then politicians and other decision makers did not have email addresses or they were not accessible to the general public.

    Regarding the two questions planned for this week’s hcsmca tweet chat I will respond here as it will take more than 140 characters ;)

    T1 “What are the benefits and limitations of using social media to educate decision-makers”?

    For your message to benefit it must more about the content rather than the medium: has it been properly framed, backed up with research and is it relevant to the current decision makers agenda – in other words were they engaged in its design, implementation and analysis – the major tenants of knowledge translation? The actual medium (social media) used to disseminate it may be less relevant. In other words limitations may be more about timing than using social media.

    T2 “What examples have you seen of successful, or unsuccessful, social media education campaigns”?

    I personally have tried tweeting Deb Matthews, London North Centre MPP in Ontario and current Minister of Health and Long-Term care regarding some of my own research and advocacy efforts with some success.

    There is currently a campaign underway, “Water Voices” ( designed to draw attention to the lack of clean drinking water available to many Aboriginal communities living on First Nation Reserves. Part of the Water Voices strategy involves using “tweet bombing”: a telephone number used as a text message that sends a tweet to local politicians who have First Nation Reserves within their riding. Whether this activity results in action or blocked senders remains to be seen.



    • Lauren Dobson-Hughes (@laurendhughes) permalink
      September 11, 2012 9:14 am

      Thanks Laura. This is a really comprehensive answer and your knowledge is clearly extensive. I agree that going back to social media basics is important – SM is a medium. It only carries your message. As ever, your message has to be well-researched, targeted and persuasive. SM can’t work magic – if your message is garbled and your audience isn’t receptive, no amount of tweeting will help!

      I’m also unsure about extensive tweet bombing as a tactic. It could go either way. It can certain get attention and raise awareness, but whether it educates is another matter. Perhaps a coordinated Day/Week of Action, involving this technique, but not relying on it exclusively, is better. It does however mobilise a large number of supporters and multiply your message.

      Thanks for the links – I’ll spend today perusing them.



  2. September 11, 2012 7:06 am

    T2 There is certainly a role in using social media for attempting to influence decision makers. A number of Ontario physicians have started using Twitter in the last few months and many of them have found it a fast and effective way of reaching Deb Matthews and other political leaders so they can express their views and concerns. Ditto with all of the physicians who have been using Twitter and other social media channels to try and influence the federal government with respect to providing health coverage for refugees


    • Lauren Dobson-Hughes (@laurendhughes) permalink
      September 11, 2012 9:21 am

      Thanks Pat. I agree that SM is a good way for ‘ordinary’ people to reach decision-makers. It’s a way of making your voice heard. The refugee campaign certainly drew attention, and I liked the component where people sent pennies to their MP (the cost of refugee healthcare). In this post, I’m trying to distinguish influencing and educating, since they’re two linked, but separate, ideas. Educating is perhaps a subset of influencing – first your MP has to understand there’s a problem and agree with your solution.

      In terms of the dispute between ON and physicians, SM can and is being used to pile on public pressure. However, I feel that a solution, if there is one, is likier to be found behind closed doors, where compromises can be reached. SM helps to pressure parties to want to find a solution, but with such a delicate issue, I feel that any deal will happen face-to-face.

      Thanks for your thoughts – look forward to chatting further tomorrow.



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