Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Master of Health Information Science


Health Information Science


Shelley, Jacob


Risk communication campaigns are essential during public health crises to inform the public about ways to mitigate, alleviate and manage potential risks. The purpose of this study was to describe risk communication on social media by Ontarian health authorities amid COVID-19, in addition to examining the strategies that guided their social media use. This was completed through (a) a narrative review of risk communication literature; (b) a qualitative content analysis of select health authority Twitter messaging following three major COVID-19 milestones; and (c) key informant interviews with those coordinating social media responses to COVID-19. Information giving and news updates were the prominent functions of Twitter, while communicating about health equity and misinformation was less prominent. Interviews revealed that staffing, financial resources, and leadership buy-in are key to facilitating risk communication, and there is mixed use of theory and evidence to inform strategies. Recommendations are discussed, including the need for evidence-based, proactive emergency communication plans, and an increased consideration of equity in risk communications.

Summary for Lay Audience

Social media is a powerful tool that governments can use to communicate essential information to the public, especially during an emergency like a pandemic. However, it is also important that these governments approach the use of social media carefully, as misuse can lead to confusion and misinformation. Evidence has unfortunately shown that there are gaps in how governments use strategies to communicate over social media (Tursunbayeva, Franco, & Pagliari, 2017).

This study aimed to describe how Twitter was used during an emergency by provincial and local governments in Ontario using COVID-19 as a case study, while also aiming to understand what strategies were used by these governments to communicate on social media. This was done by reviewing tweets from a group of Ontarian health authorities following three major COVID-19 milestones. Following this, interviews were conducted with six individuals who were responsible for social media communication to gain an understanding of their successes, challenges, and strategies.

The analysis of Twitter communication revealed that primarily, this group of Ontarian governmental bodies focused on offering information and resources to the public, while providing updates about the spread of COVID-19 in the community. While important, there was less focus on the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations (e.g., those experiencing homelessness, addiction, etc.), and providing clarity on misinformation. Interviews showed that individuals responsible for this communication at these governmental bodies may need access to increased staffing and funding, as well as more support from the leaders at their organization. Further, interviews confirmed that some governmental bodies used evidence to back up their social media communication, while others did not.

Based on these findings, it is suggested that governments work toward having strategies in advance of a crisis that uses evidence to be better prepared, while actively working with media outlets to identify and manage misinformation. More focus on how crises such as COVID-19 impact vulnerable populations should also remain a priority for these governments in their communication strategies.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License.