By Steve Metcalf, Communications Specialist, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department
“Wash your hands!”
As young children, we heard this message often. Parents, teachers, and other well-meaning adults reinforced this hand hygiene mantra: before mealtimes, after bathroom visits, and when we had the sniffles or coughs.
It’s sound and simple advice to ward off germs, viruses, and bacteria. But how do we keep this important message top of mind as an upstream intervention? That’s where public health comes in.
To mark National Handwashing Awareness Week (Dec. 4-10), Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department wants to share strategies and tactics we use to promote proper handwashing. The well-known wet, lather, scrub, rinse, and dry handwashing steps are central to our efforts. Beyond that, one goal is to engage targeted audiences with messages relevant to them. A closely related strategy is social marketing. We want people to know this one action—done properly and regularly—can reduce the spread of serious diseases and keep them healthy.
Bad germs used for a good cause
Our existing handwashing sign needed an upgrade. In spring of 2017, we decided to change them. The new version would replace what’s displayed at medical facilities, schools, businesses, and other public places across the county. The Health Department team behind this effort wanted to reimagine the sign to make it more eye-catching, and with the public’s help, develop a message that would resonate with different populations. The team used creativity and community outreach to:
- Show what germs look like to up the ick factor—The visual communications specialist on the team used actual germs from unwashed hands to spell out wash your hands. She used her background in microbiology to cultivate the germs in Petri dishes.
- Tailor the message for the greatest impact with the broadest audience—We tested our message. We used a survey to get public feedback on versions of the sign with four different secondary messages. We asked for responses through a boosted post on Facebook and from students at area schools.
Our effort to get people involved in and excited about handwashing had better results than we imagined. We wanted 100 responses. Nearly 230 people took the survey. On Facebook, the post with our survey had a reach of more than 11,500 and got 116 shares and eight comments. These are big numbers for our agency. At the time, our Facebook following was about 1,100. The public feedback influenced the messaging in what became our new handwashing sign.
All lathered up on social media
During this year’s National Food Safety Month, our agency took an edgy approach to our social media campaign. Humor, social relevance, and social marketing intersected to produce GermDates and SafetySingles.
With so-called “invincibles”—adults 18-45 years old—as our target, we embraced the online dating concept. We created dating profiles for foodborne pathogens like salmonella, norovirus, and E. coli. Those were the GermDates. And safe food practices, like proper handwashing, temperature control, and a food worker who stays home when sick were our SafetySingles. Posts with the profiles included information about how you could block the GermDates or match with the SafetySingles based on their likes, dislikes, hobbies, and other interests.
Later in the month, we put handwashing in the lead with the SafetySingle Handsoap. In the post, Handsoap speaks in the first person about handwashing, but the dull and boring act becomes risqué with double entendres and suggestive language. Our target audience—those invincibles who might think they can never get sick—seemed to get the message.
This low-cost campaign got more people to talk about what is normally a dry topic. Just on Facebook, the eight posts from the campaign had a reach of more than 30,000 and had hundreds of post engagements. Our 2016 Food Safety Month campaign on Facebook had a reach of about 3,700.
Teach the children (and others) well
The virtues of good old-fashioned handwashing should be taught early. A good way to engage young learners is with hands-on lessons. That’s why the Health Department has several programs designed for students or use in the classroom:
- Operation Suds—A self-administered, interactive program for students in grades K-6. We provide educators the materials they need to help teach children the importance of proper handwashing.
- Super Scrub and Bubbles—Activity books for children in grades 2-4 that feature two superheroes on a quest to battle germs. They enlist the help of children as grime fighters through fun reminders about handwashing.
- Wash Your Hands lesson plan—A collaboration between the Health Department and Tacoma Public Schools’ Science and Math Institute, this lesson plan allows older students to do experiments about handwashing and germ transfer.
- On a Superfund site in the county contaminated with arsenic and lead, staff from our Dirt Alert program include handwashing demonstrations in their school visits to teach children about soil safety.
Local fairs, festivals, and other community gatherings offer regular opportunities to bring handwashing messages directly to the public. The Health Department has two mobile handwashing trailers—equipped with sinks, soap, and paper towels—for use at these events for free. In these public venues, they serve the dual purpose of promoting handwashing and providing a reliable place to keep hands clean.
Find more information about handwashing efforts at Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and other tools on our handwashing webpage.