Effective communication during a health crisis can ease public concerns and promote the adoption of important risk-mitigating behaviors. Public health agencies and leaders have served as the primary communicators of information related to COVID-19, and a key part of their public outreach has taken place on social media platforms.
This study examined the content and engagement of COVID-19 tweets authored by Canadian public health agencies and decision makers. We propose ways for public health accounts to adjust their tweeting practices during public health crises to improve risk communication and maximize engagement.
We retrieved data from tweets by Canadian public health agencies and decision makers from January 1, 2020, to June 30, 2020. The Twitter accounts were categorized as belonging to either a public health agency, regional or local health department, provincial health authority, medical health officer, or minister of health. We analyzed trends in COVID-19 tweet engagement and conducted a content analysis on a stratified random sample of 485 tweets to examine the message functions and risk communication strategies used by each account type.
We analyzed 32,737 tweets authored by 118 Canadian public health Twitter accounts, of which 6982 tweets were related to COVID-19. Medical health officers authored the largest percentage of COVID-19–related tweets (n=1337, 35%) relative to their total number of tweets and averaged the highest number of retweets per COVID-19 tweet (112 retweets per tweet). Public health agencies had the highest frequency of daily tweets about COVID-19 throughout the study period. Compared to tweets containing media and user mentions, hashtags and URLs were used in tweets more frequently by all account types, appearing in 69% (n=4798 tweets) and 68% (n=4781 tweets) of COVID-19–related tweets, respectively. Tweets containing hashtags also received the highest average retweets (47 retweets per tweet). Our content analysis revealed that of the three tweet message functions analyzed (information, action, community), tweets providing information were the most commonly used across most account types, constituting 39% (n=181) of all tweets; however, tweets promoting actions from users received higher than average retweets (55 retweets per tweet). When examining tweets that received one or more retweet (n=359), the difference between mean retweets across the message functions was statistically significant (P<.001). The risk communication strategies that we examined were not widely used by any account type, appearing in only 262 out of 485 tweets. However, when these strategies were used, these tweets received more retweets compared to tweets that did not use any risk communication strategies (P<.001) (61 retweets versus 13 retweets on average).
Public health agencies and decision makers should examine what messaging best meets the needs of their Twitter audiences to maximize sharing of their communications. Public health accounts that do not currently employ risk communication strategies in their tweets may be missing an important opportunity to engage with users about the mitigation of health risks related to COVID-19.