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More Than Words: How Is Communication Important to Public Health?

This news item is the first in a 10-part series on public health communication. This series will focus on strategies for successful communication with your target audiences, helping to make a clear, compelling voice for public health in your community.

This news item is the first in a 10-part series on public health communication. This series will focus on strategies for successful communication with your target audiences, helping to make a clear, compelling voice for public health in your community.

April 23, 2013

As public health practitioners, you ask tough questions, meticulously analyze data, craft policies, and work on behalf of entire populations of people. Those activities alone are challenging, but they are not finished until they are understood by the community.

How you communicate your myriad of facts and figures to a large group of people requires careful strategy. Because your target population is exposed to innumerable sources of information, from talk show hosts and newspapers to next-door neighbors and the Internet, your message has to compete to be heard, and more importantly, believed. As you know, public health messages are critical. If you lack a voice in the community, then all of those questions, analyses, and policies are lost.

In this series on public health communications, we will explore ways to achieve a voice for public health in your community. Our insight on this subject matter comes from a collection of personal experiences and evidence-based materials developed by marketing and communications experts inside and outside the field of public health. With those theories in mind, we developed the following goals to guide you:

  1. Gain credibility. First and foremost, you must gain credibility in the population. This means that your target populations trust you to have their best interests in mind and to have the most accurate information.
  2. Achieve clarity. Public health messages often lie at the intersection of science and politics, and this subject matter can be intimidating or even contentious. Once people believe you, they will need to understand what you’re saying and be able to repeat it correctly. The people who truly listen will be your greatest asset in spreading awareness—and news travels quickly.
  3. Maintain cohesion. Public health communications typically solicit change—either in behavior or belief. Unfortunately, people don’t like change. When influencing public opinion or actions, consistent messaging and tone will help position you as a stable, dependable resource. The cohesiveness of your materials will help the public build confidence in you, and accepting change will feel less daunting.

Sometimes giving your message a “spin” can feel subversive, but that’s not what smart public health communications is about. Doctors and other clinicians carefully craft messages every day and call it “a good bedside manner.” There’s a subtle, yet important, distinction between asking patients if they are experiencing rhinorrhea and asking patients if they have a runny nose.

In public health, words shouldn’t be twisted, but rather shaped to be more accessible and relatable to more people. This concept lies at the very essence of what you do and why you do it, so don’t be afraid to embrace strategy and technology to make your public health communications more engaging.

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