Avery, Elizabeth Johnson; Lariscy, Ruthann; Amador, Ellie; Ickowitz, Tanya; Primm, Charles; & Taylor, Abigail (2010). Diffusion of social media among public relations practitioners in health departments across various community population sizes. Journal of Public Relations Research, 22, 332-358.

This research employs a survey of 281 public relations practitioners in public health departments serving four distinct sizes of communities—urban, suburban, large town, and rural—in 48 states. Based on diffusion of innovations theory, it examines the extent to which social media are adopted within public health agencies and moderators of that adoption. These public information officers (PIOs) report an overall low adoption rate of social media tools. However, significant differences were observed for adoption based on size of communities, with urban communities exhibiting highest adoption rates, followed by suburban, large town, and rural communities. The most frequently cited barrier practitioners name for why they don’t think constituents would benefit from health information distributed online is lack of home access to the Internet. Among the 17 percent of practitioners who indicate they use social media to disseminate health information, the most commonly used tools are social networking sites followed by new media release, blogs, and discussion boards. Practitioners in rural areas, while lowest in overall social media use, reported highest use of podcasting. Implications regarding health and health information disparities are discussed, a potentially new motivation for innovation adoption is introduced, and future studies to follow the S-shaped adoption curve are proposed.


Online surveys were conducted from February to April 2009 with 281 public information officers at public health departments across the United States.

Key Findings

1)      There was an overall low level of adoption and use of social media tools by public information officers at health departments (17% of the sample).

2)      PIOs in urban communities reported the highest adoption rates, followed by suburban, large town, and rural communities; disparities in use were statistically significant.

3)      Practitioners hesitant to engage social media for public health identified lack of home Internet access as the primary barrier to their constituents benefitting from health information distributed online.

4)      For those PIOs who did use social media, the most commonly used tools were social networking sites followed by new media release, blogs, and discussion boards.

5)      There is evidence here of a digital divide potentially plaguing to social media adoption among public health practitioners. For those practitioners who did use social media, social networking sites were the most frequent type.

Implications for Practice

The social media adoption rates of public health practitioners in this study were behind those in other industries. The influence of the size of an organization and the area it serves on adoption rates of social media yields important considerations for practitioners who may operate in smaller areas and/or with fewer resources.. In an era where publics feel increasingly disenfranchised from the medical community as insurance and other financial woes plague health care at every level, the power of social media in providing a critical forum for two-way medical communication can and should be realized by practitioners and their publics, be they in urban or rural settings.

Article Location

The full article is available for purchase at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10627261003614427

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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