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Germs, Social Media and the 4Es – Spreading a movement

December 10, 2013

According to Jason Tetro’s website he is The Germ Guy as well as an author, researcher, germevangelist, germs relationship therapist. This week on #hcsmca (December 11 at 1pm ET) Jason is our special guest. He’ll share how he knit social media, traditional media and storytelling to change the public’s relationship to germs and why this version of viral was good. Here’s some background to the story to set the stage for Wednesday’s chat.

By Jason Tetro (@JATetro)

Jason Tetro The germ guyAbout a decade ago, the knowledge translation (KT) community realized that despite successes in bridging science and policy, there were two parties had yet to be included: the public and the media. Initially, the public wasn’t perceived as being altogether important but they were eventually seen as drivers of policy; without them, no amount of policywonking was going to cause change. As for the media, they were worse.  Airtime on radio and television as well as whitespace in newspapers, magazines and books was limited and there had to be a compulsion for following a lead, not simply a press release filled with jargon.

With over ten years of KT knowledge, in 2009, I set on a near five year journey to increase the appreciation, respect and commitment to germs in the public and the media in the hopes of changing policy and increasing funding. My hypothesis was that my version of KT, made up of a derivation of social marketing’s tenets, would attract both the public and the media and eventually start a movement that would force change.

One such experiment was #handhygiene, which I founded in 2010. I wanted to garner attention to a topic that was important in microbiology and yet regarded as inconsequential in the public. Over time, I learned that the key to success was to incorporate what I call the 4Eseducation, enrichment, engagement and entertainment in every outgoing message.  It was not an easy process but over time, the skill came as did the response. The hashtag became a movement in the public and the media came in droves.

The Germ Code book coverAfter the countless hours of airtime and even more behind the scenes, I received an invitation to write a book.  It was the genesis of The Germ Code (#TheGermCode) and the start of a new direction in KT that was unlike any other.  We wanted a positive bestseller but that appeared to be near impossible.  After all, notable ‘germs’ bestsellers such as The Coming Plague, Virus Hunters, and The Hot Zone all focused on one theme: we’re all going to die.  In contrast, those that attempted to put germs into a positive light sat helplessly on bookstore shelves with little interest.  It was decided that my book would fall somewhere in the middle between love and fear, hope and despair, and of course, Alvy and Annie.

But with the help of my publisher, Random House/Doubleday Canada, and my tenets of social marketing, The Germ Code became a book that has not only become popular but also the genesis of a new movement focusing on a better relationship with germs.  The message is so strong that this book could have been called: Humans Are From Earth, Germs Are From Uranus. Moreover, if you happened to understand the reference to Alvy and Annie, you will also know that the book was not based on scientific flow, but on one that is much more inclined to the dysfunction relationship humans have with germs:  Woody Allen.

While the content (education) is about the struggle of humans and germs (enrichment) and the desperate need to improve that relationship (engagement), it reads (entertainment) unlike any other germs book ever written. It is the true manifestation of the 4Es and as a result, I have been blessed with not only widespread media attention but also an international following that is growing.

If there is one lesson that can be gained from this experience, it is quite simply this:  to attain success in the media and the public, you have to tell a story. In my context, I have become a scientific storyteller, which is quite a distance away from a science communicator.  For those of you in #hcsmca, you need to be healthcare storytellers. Using #hcsmca, you can learn tips and tricks, share with all interested parties including the public and the media, and eventually take the movement to an even higher level. It may not be easy but it is rewarding and I encourage everyone to consider it and give it a shot.

So, to start, let me ask you this:  what is your story?

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