Crafting a Public Health Campaign
Wednesday, September 9, 2015
You never quite know what’s going to fall into your lap in the World Health Organization’s media unit. The Regional Director may need to reshoot a TV spot on the same day that a storm suddenly floods one of the 11 countries you oversee. Figuring out what the various arms of the WHO are doing in response to a situation, and then designing a campaign on the fly?—?it’s like breaking into a sprint at the tenth mile.
A couple of weeks ago, one of the things that fell into my lap was a script. As part of a major anti-tobacco campaign in Southeast Asia, the WHO decided to outsource an animated video on tobacco control. On first read, though, the narrative didn’t feel quite right.
Later that day, over the din of the WHO canteen, Kate Long, a doctoral student at Boston University School of Public Health, outlined the pattern that many public health messages fall into:
“We start by telling people how big the problem is, and then we talk about how the problem is growing at these crazy rates. And then we go into our messages about how we can maybe change the direction of things.”
Like the script I’d received, public health messages often follow a formula: They speak in statistics (“Over 50,000 men, women, and children now carry the AIDS virus.”) and other direful predictions (“In 3 years, nearly 2,000 of us will be dead.”) to ring an alarm (“If not stopped, it could kill more Australians than World War II!”), and then proceed to tell people what they should be doing (“If you have sex, have just one safe partner. Or always use condoms. Always.”).
Kate argues that public health professionals are trained to think this way?—?by academic writing, grant proposals, and the allure of good data. There’s a tendency to speak in abstract numbers and probabilities in responding to real, established problems. She refers to this disconnect, the expectation that the evidence will speak for itself, as preaching from our “stumps of righteousness.”
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