36322 The Medium Is the Message. Still.: Marketing Spokespersons in the Digital Age

Jana Telfer, MA, Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA, Barbara Reynolds, PhD, CDC/OD/OADC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA, Leslie Parker, BFA, Division of Communication Services/Graphic Services Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA and Jennifer McQuiston, DVM, MS, Divison of Public Affairs, Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA

Background:  In 1998, the advisory committee to the CDC director encouraged the agency to explore how branding could help the agency achieve its mission. Seventeen years later in 2014, with a proliferation of media outlets and channels, a preference shift from print to video and visual media, and growing emphasis on personalities in shaping an organizational brand, CDC needed a way to show that its scientists not only were knowledgeable, but also engaging personalities.

Program background: Although video is increasingly a primary means of information gathering and dissemination, CDC’s website remains print-based. When they come to CDC, journalists depend on recommendations from agency press officers or the lead author on scientific articles to select spokespersons for their stories. In an era where YouTube is the most popular information source, CDC needed to capture its experts’ passion for public health and demonstrate their competence not only as scientists but as communicators. CDC communication experts examined businesses and government portrayal of spokespersons and created a unique solution—online digital portfolios. Initially the portfolio featured an expert on each of five topics that typically interest journalists. Over the next year as issues such as laboratory safety and Ebola emerged, new profiles were added. Individual landing pages feature iconic photos, energetic professional summaries, and a 1-2 minute video. Distinct from other audio-visual products on CDC’s website, these videos were shot without scripts or the use of a teleprompter. Scientists were tasked with identifying a message they were passionate about and telling that story in their own words in less than two minutes. The portfolios also contain online “file folders” linking to publications, news coverage, and other resources. Creating each portfolio required about 4 months, to find sufficient time to shoot videos and location photography. 

Evaluation Methods and Results:  CDC is able to track web page visits closely. In the five months from November 1, 2014 to March 30, 2015, media pages received 2% of agency website visits; the spokesperson page ranked in the top third of media pages visited, equal to the site’s MMWR page, for which news releases are issued. Nearly 2/3 of the media site’s pages (64%) had no visitors. In its first year (March 1, 2014 to March 30, 2015), the spokesperson site received 26,411 page views, with 2,718 downloads. 

Conclusions:  The growing preference for online video information sourcing indicates a need for government agencies to convey information in this format. Organizational brands should convey values and promise; showing its people talking about topics they believe in not only can convey those elements, but also humanize the organization and make its brand promise more accessible.

Implications for research and/or practice:  Video technology is widely available and affordable; thus, cost and training need not be a barrier. With increasing competition for attention, high-quality content and delivery are important to achieve greatest impact. Encouraging scientists to allow their personalities to be visible potentially can increase an agency’s visibility and reinforce its mission. Further evaluation is needed to assess the effect of this tool.