Back to the basics in health communications

By Michele Kleinmann and Maureen Byrne

May 1, 2019

May 1, 2019 – Last week at the Society for Health Communication Annual Summit, we had the opportunity to join an impressive group of health communications professionals from academia, government and the private sector to discuss some of the most important topics in the field today. One of the threads that connected the various panels and breakout groups, as well as the media roundtable the night before, was the importance of knowing your audience. While this may seem like “communication 101,” it’s a valuable reminder since it can be easy to lose the forest through the trees when we’re checking off tactics for our clients. Below are some of the key themes and takeaways.

Give journalists what they want, and nothing more

Journalists from The Associated Press, NPR and WebMD were unanimous that they want action-oriented B-roll footage, rather than highly-produced “talking head” videos with music in the background (we’re all guilty of this one)! Even footage from your iPhone can allow them to pull compelling audio or video to supplement their stories.

Similarly, they want raw data points and facts rather than ready-to-go infographics. Most top-tier media have their own graphics and animation departments, and they would rather produce content in-house that is tailored to their readers.

To reach diverse audiences, media also need access to diverse spokespeople – experts who represent a range of races, genders and life experiences. NPR’s Nell Greenfieldboyce encouraged PR people to reach out to reporters and offer them access to a spokesperson with a different background if they notice that one of their stories lacks a diversity of voices.

Finally, reporters have only a few seconds to read each email pitch. Don’t waste time with the niceties in the upfront, include no more than a few sentences, and don’t fill the email with links (hint: they don’t click through)!

Don’t skimp on the formative research

The value of formative research [and measurement and evaluation (M&E) in general] when developing health communications campaigns cannot be overstated. Baseline data and knowledge of our target audience are essential to designing effective campaigns. Professor Gary Kreps of George Mason University likened it to driving without being able to see out of your windshield – not only will the campaign be ineffective, but it has the potential to be dangerous.

Ronne Ostby of Fors Marsh Group got a few laughs when she said, “we always think we’re the target audience…I’ve never been the target audience!” She reminded us that, as health communicators, our knowledge and education levels usually disqualify us from this role.

Other panelist tips included:

  • Start with the questions you’re trying to answer before deciding on a research method
  • Conduct multi-method, multi-informant research
  • Don’t collect data you aren’t going to use
  • Build in M&E (and the budget needed) from the beginning of a program
  • Build capacity within your own organization so that everyone, not just the “M&E experts,” understands the reasoning and methods for M&E

Write in plain language and design for health literacy

Nine out of ten adults in the U.S. struggle to understand and use health information. When developing messaging and materials, leave the jargon at the door and write in plain, conversational language. For example, according to Stacy Robison from CommunicateHealth, we should say “doctor or nurse” instead of “healthcare provider,” which many people understand to mean “insurance company.”

Additional tips include:

  • Put the most important information first rather than starting with too much background information
  • Include three main points with supporting information
  • Don’t write more than three lines of text
  • Take advantage of bullets and white-space;
  • Try not to use the preachy terms “should” or “don’t” (something we failed at in this post).

If you want to learn more, check out the CDC Clear Communication Index for more information and assessment tools.

A big thank you to our colleagues at the Society for Health Communication for organizing a highly-engaging Summit as well as to everyone who helped make it a success. Head over to their website to learn more about this impressive group and to get involved.