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Improve Your Message By Asking Questions—Especially These Questions

By Risa Wilkerson on August 24th, 2016

Healthy community leaders are constantly aiming to create demand and support for specific changes, and it can be tempting to use traditional health messaging, with its jargon and dense data sets, to sway opinion. However, when health is assumed to be the driving value for all audiences, that approach rarely works well. When resources are scarce and there are a lot of other messages competing for a key audience, communication must be strategic and responsive to unique variables.

Healthy community change addresses a variety of social issues and priorities, and strategic communication planning can be an effective tool for success. Over the years, we’ve learned great lessons about communication strategies that work (and ones that don’t) across the country to support foundations and community coalitions as they strive to improve policies and social and physical environments. Having a strategic communication plan that is well-informed involves asking:

  • What is the history around the issue in this community? How is our communications approach different than what has been tried before?
  • At what scale will this work best?
  • What other co-benefits, beyond health, are worth lifting up? We know that sometimes the most effective healthy community advocates may not have health outcomes on their radar, but effective messaging can help them move in the direction of healthy community change.

Below are two recent, and very different, examples of successful strategic communication that recognized the importance of history, scale, and a broader set of audience values.

Philadelphia passed a soda tax in June of this year, and the mayor intentionally avoided previously failed attempts that focused on public health framing. As reported in The New Yorker, “In 2010 and 2011, Mayor Kenney’s predecessor, Michael Nutter, had used a health-oriented message to try to build a soda tax into his budget. It hadn’t worked; even Kenney, then a city-council member, had voted against it. But Philadelphia, like many U.S. cities, is struggling to find revenue to fund its public programs…[so Kenney] argued that the tax could raise $400,000,000 over five years, ‘enough to fund not just universal preschool, but also renovations to local libraries, parks and recreation centers; community schools that wrap social services with education; and cash for the troubled municipal pension program. The New York Times also noted, ‘He is not using the word obesity, or suggesting that people should drink less soda.’”[1]

But what about work that spans multiple communities or an entire nation? We see an innovative communication strategy coming from the Black Lives Matter movement. Unlike the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which had a more hierarchical structure and controlled messaging, Black Lives Matter is intentionally decentralized, allowing local chapters to advocate for the issues that are most relevant to their communities based on a set of guiding principles. Critics say this approach may dilute key messages, create confusion, or generate factions or divisions in the movement. But those who are on the forefront of the movement recognize that messages need to resonate with a community’s history, that the work is bigger than a select group of individuals who might try to manage it from afar, and that leadership comes from many different places. “The consequence of focusing on a leader is that you develop a necessity for that leader to be the one who’s the spokesperson and the organizer, who tells the masses where to go, rather than the masses understanding that we can catalyze a movement in our own community,” says Patrisse Cullors, one of the movement’s co-founders.

Strategic communication for public health should draw on good practice for communication with individuals (see last week’s blog post by Sarah Moore). The examples from both Philadelphia and the Black Lives Matter movement illustrate the utility of asking some intentional questions about community context, scale, and audiences’ values to guide your strategic communications.

Finally, there are some great organizations, like Berkeley Media Studies Group, Spitfire Strategies, and Burness, that support strategic communication around health issues full time, and can take you so much deeper on the subject. If you’re looking for additional guidance, be sure to check them out!

[1] “There’s Now a Soda Tax in Philadelphia, but Not Because Sugar Is Bad for You,” The New Yorker, June 16, 2016

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.