Canada

Good job, Bruce: The guy behind North America's top public health Twitter account

Actually, his name is Kevin, and he and his team at Ottawa Public Health have been a rare source of sincere, useful and sometimes funny information through the pandemic

On February 7, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs to win the Super Bowl.

Shortly after the celebratory confetti fluttered across the field at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, an obscure municipal government Twitter account from a far-off, ice-bound city—the town, some say, that fun forgot—tweeted the following:

The tweet went instantly and enduringly viral, eventually seen by some 2.8 million people. There were replies smugly dunking on that idiot Bruce who was about to get canned from the incompetent drone factory that employed him. There were the kindly souls concerned about Bruce’s well-being in the wake of what was, after all, a human mistake any of us could have made. There were the inevitable “You had one job…” guys.

And then there was everyone who knew exactly what was going on. And to the rest of you, we said: welcome to Ottawa Public Health Twitter, so nice of you to join us.

OPH to their friends, the organization has owned the best public health communications game in Canada over this difficult and dismal pandemic year. That effort is most visible in a Twitter account that could have been as dry, soulless and witless as government accounts almost always are, but is instead a finely-tuned antenna picking up on the collective mood of the citizens it serves and responding with humour, empathy and humanity.

In a public health emergency, when you need each person to make the right choices or everyone ends up in serious trouble, good communication is arguably as important to slowing a galloping virus as masks and hand sanitizer. Citizens need information they can understand, trust and act on, and they need a reason to upend their lives and pull together even when they are tired and scared and stressed. Instead, too many Canadians have been subjected to public health officials who speak like ATMs come to life, politicians who preach sacrifice while throwing themselves at the nearest jet bound for a beach and to muddled, condescending or emotionally constipated messaging about what they need to do and why.

But in the midst of that morass, there is Ottawa Public Health stalwartly putting out long, nuanced threads that explain the reasoning for public health measures people are finding it tough to live with; empathetic acknowledgements that this is all really hard, but we will get through it; earnest reminders about what we need to do and how it will help; and smartass riffs that grab attention before imparting some solid bit of public health information.

Also sometimes there are grade 7-calibre sex jokes. (OPH hipster tip: If you ever read a tweet and wonder if something was done on purpose, the answer is always yes.)

As a result, OPH is the most-followed local public health unit in North America, with around 107,000 followers, almost half of whom were picked up in the last year. Only Los Angeles Public Health comes close, at roughly 103,000 followers, while Toronto Public Health and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene each have about 76,000.

“We’re very rarely talking to people as much as we’re talking with people. It’s just what are people worried about, what are the concerns that people have, and then meet them in those spaces,” says Kevin Parent, social media lead at Ottawa Public Health and the man behind the curtain of those tweets. “The overwhelming majority of our messaging comes from watching what people are saying online and trying to respond to that in kind.”

The big goal is engagement. If OPH puts out a witty tweet and someone replies, the organization can return serve, and a couple of those exchanges make the account a more real and trusted entity. The hope is that makes someone more likely to pay attention to the information they share or to add credence to one of their posts by sharing it.

Parent’s “book reports” have become a running joke among his colleagues; once he wrote a risqué post about free condoms for the city’s Sex It Smart program, and there were worries about whether it was appropriate. So Parent wrote a six-page paper citing academic research about the effectiveness of using humour to talk to younger audiences about sex. Even the jokes in public health are evidence-based.

He worked for years as a bartender in Ottawa, then got into promotional marketing, but he reached a point where he couldn’t advance further without a degree. So, he and his wife—then parents to one child—agreed that although the idea was terrifying, he would go back to school full-time. He enrolled at Carleton University, and shortly after he graduated with a degree in communications in 2018, he noticed a job posting with the City of Ottawa, seeking someone to handle communications and social media for OPH. Something about the job just seemed neat. “This is public health messaging,” he recalls thinking. “This is not super exciting, fun stuff, so it will be that uphill challenge of trying to bring life to it.”

What is perhaps most remarkable and effective about OPH’s communications now is that it’s not a bullhorn, but a conversation. Everything they say to the public and hear back exists in a constant feedback loop in which the organization’s social media channels function like the antennae of the organism.

“We read every single comment. We read every single reply. We try to answer as many of them as we can so we can have that engaging nature,” Parent says. “But that’s also one of our primary sources of information. We will regularly be perusing through comments and replies and we’ll notice, hey, you know what, 11 different people today all asked this question, or there seems to be a mood or a feel in Ottawa around this topic.”

In response, there might be an answer or acknowledgement in the next statement from Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health. Or media relations staff will notice that three news outlets have asked the same question, so the social media team will craft a message that addresses the issue for the public.

And sometimes the response is more emotional than pragmatic.

Jan. 18 was a frigid Monday. Vaccines were delayed, variants were in the air, lockdowns extended. Ontario was due to announce later that week which school boards would re-open to in-person learning, but with COVID-19 cases still spiking due to holiday gatherings, that seemed unlikely in Ottawa, even as parents were slowly drowning under the weight of work and helping their kids with virtual school.

The social media and mental health teams at OPH are in constant conversation, and in Parent’s recollection, Ben Leikin, program manager for the mental health and substance use unit, had said “Things are hard for everyone” to him about five times in the preceding couple of weeks. Parent was feeling personally defeated, struggling to help his oldest son navigate Grade 2 math in French, while he and his wife guiltily tallied up the hours of screentime their kids had gobbled up over the weekend (they now have a seven-year-old, a four-year-old and an infant).

Twitter was particularly dark and sad that day, Parent told Leikin, and they needed to figure out how to respond. Most of the social media posts are vetted by subject-matter experts before publishing, so Parent wrote a draft and sent it to Leikin—also a parent—who immediately asked if the message was implicitly about parenting. There was certainly that undertone, but Parent hoped it would register with everyone.

Not long after, OPH tweeted this:

What could have landed like empty corporate platitudes instead came across like a friend asking how you’re doing and then asking again: no really, how are you?

“You want to know what? I needed to hear this. So thanks for saying it. You folks are the best,” one person responded. Another chimed in, “This is probably the most truthful statement people need to hear more often these days.” Etches herself replied, “Thanks from our family.”

The tweet remains pinned to the top of OPH’s Twitter profile, and Leikin says what they are observing anecdotally matches the data from their regular mental health surveys. “Across the board, we are struggling,” he says. “That’s the pulse of the community right now and we can feel it.”

A few months ago, OPH deliberately stopped using the phrase “We’re all in this together,” because the pandemic simply was not the same for medical professionals and those away from the frontlines, parents and teachers, people who had the luxury of staying at home and those who needed to go to work. The analogy Leikin likes is that we’re all weathering the same storm, but in different boats. “We really try to strike that tone of being honest and authentic, but also being really purposely compassionate and human and trying to connect to the population,” he says.

They have a “three sets of eyes” rule for checking any potentially risky communications before it meets the public. But unpacking how OPH is great at public communications is also a parable about workplaces that get the best out of their staff: listen to what your people tell you, trust them to do their thing, accept a certain batting average as the cost of swinging for the fences.

“We have a very low level of risk aversion. If we put a post out and it falls flat on its face, so be it, it’s part of the job and we move on,” says Parent. “There’s never that fear. I can honestly say that I’ve never once had a fear of pressing go on something or giving a reply on a tweet and wondering, “Ugh…’ because there’s so much support in place.”

OPH also avoids the perpetual government communications trap of workshopping everything into some gross humanoid simulacrum. “We are people talking with people, and a part of that is using our empathy and emotional intelligence,” says Jason Haug, supervisor of social media and engagement. “We’ve always tried to have this very human approach to our social media, as if you know Ottawa Public Health, they’re a friend of yours that has information and expertise and you’re asking them for their opinion.”

But still, ask Parent how he landed on Bruce as the name of the incompetent mythical employee working Super Bowl weekend and he’ll gleefully deconstruct it like a comedian in a Q&A after a set: it had to be someone specific, and “Bruce” doesn’t gobble up much character limit and it’s a name that’s somehow easy to get mad at.

The day after that tweet went out, when Parent realized how many people were missing the joke, he decided to spin it off into a mini-thread about spotting misinformation online, just to make the wink-and-nudge perfectly clear. “So yeah, we ran with it,” he says, still chortling: who on earth would go to the trouble of creating a placeholder image that says “[insert winning team logo here]” just so that someone else would have to edit it later? 

The best days at work now remind Parent of his bartending days, when someone would stalk into the bar having had One Of Those Days and they’d leave hours later, glad-handing their way out of the place, hoarse from revelry. “It’s the people that will reply to something and be like, ‘Thank you, I was having a rough day and I needed this today,'” he says. “Best feeling in the world.”

Oh, and should you ever need any public health information, you may want to check in with OPH’s virtual assistant. He’s a rudimentary artificial intelligence program, but show him some courtesy, introduce yourself and ask who he is. You’ll never guess what his name is.