Winning Words and Strategic Stories: Building Public Support for Public Health : Journal of Public Health Management and Practice

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Winning Words and Strategic Stories: Building Public Support for Public Health

Hattaway, Doug MA

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Journal of Public Health Management and Practice: November/December 2022 - Volume 28 - Issue 6 - p 754-755
doi: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000001648
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For people to see the impact of public health, they need to see themselves in public health. They need to connect public health and their own health, and they need to see how the goals of public health are consistent with the aspirations they have for their own lives. That's what makes a topic relevant and meaningful and encourages people to stop and think about it. Making those connections is a task that falls to public health professionals—and the language and stories they use to explain their work.

Words Matter: Make Them Winning Words

The job of public health professionals, educators, and communicators is to frame public health with language that helps nonexperts visualize its impact on their lives. In focus groups, we tested messages that used simple, vivid language to describe the need for public health, such as “Threats to our health can come from all kinds of places—the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe.” We found that respondents immediately were able to paint a picture of how public health is related to their lives.

Think about the visual imagery you'd like people to associate with your work. It could be a physical place (“safe neighborhoods”), a tangible object (“the food we eat”), or a personal experience (“hugging your family”). Use this language to frame conversations about your work, and you'll have taken the first step toward more motivating communications.

From Winning Words to Strategic Stories

Once we've translated abstract words, we're faced with the daunting task of translating complex ideas. Public health professionals work within a complicated web of laws, systems, and data, and we need our audience to grasp how it all connects to their lives. That understanding starts with stories.

Stories answer the “why” by turning multifaceted events into simple cause-and-effect relationships, complete with characters we can envision. Stories are especially useful when a situation is complex or the cause of a problem is hard to pin down—like in public health. Instead of abstract ideas, trends, or figures, stories introduce the people affected by the problem, those who caused the problem, and those with the power to create change.

Strategic storytelling is intended to motivate a specific group of people—your audience—to take specific actions. To do that, you need to shape your stories to communicate specific ideas that are likely to motivate the audience.

Our focus group discussions were designed to identify those motivating ideas and help us create a conceptual framework for public health professionals to use in crafting stories that resonate with the general public. The following are 4 key elements of a strategic story for public health:

  1. People: Describe public health professionals in terms that will resonate with your audience. An effective story starts with strategically putting people in the picture. Describe the expertise that public health professionals bring to their work and their involvement in the communities they serve. Who do you work with? Describe your public health colleagues, including their expertise and how they work with and listen to the communities they serve.
  2. Goals: Connect the goals of public health to the aspirations people have for their own lives. Stating that a public health professional is going to “keep you healthy” can rob people of their sense of agency—and trigger skepticism. Instead, use concrete examples like air, food, and water to help people visualize how public health prevents disease and injury—enabling them to make their own healthy choices. What is the goal of your work, and how does it keep people healthy and prevent disease or injury? Use vivid words and relatable examples.
  3. Problems: Frame the problems that public health addresses in a way that people can understand—and that sounds solvable. Public health problems that sound too overwhelming or complex can demotivate audiences, who may feel that an issue is intractable. Describe the consequences of the problem for people's lives, and, if relevant, note how health care alone is ill-equipped to address the challenge. What problems stand in the way of your goal? Make the consequences of this problem clear, but avoid being overly complex. If relevant, describe how traditional health care is not equipped to solve this problem.
  4. Solutions: Be specific about what public health professionals do—and how it benefits both individuals and communities. Describe the actions public health experts take to prevent disease and injury. Go beyond laws and policies—use specific examples to explain how each action can improve an individual's health by addressing health threats before they start. How does your work solve problems? Emphasize collaborative approaches and show how the people you serve benefit from your work.

Conclusion

Among the many lessons we've learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is how dangerous it can be to cast public health communications in a secondary, supporting role. We have learned the hard way that even the most sound, commonsense strategies—mask wearing, regular testing, contact tracing—will fail if we can't motivate people to participate. In other words, the language we use and the stories we tell are just as important as the data we mine and the studies we publish.

Don't feel the need to have all the answers, but push yourself to ask the right questions. For example, public health experts would be thrilled if leaders in other sectors asked: “There's probably evidence on how this decision affects people's health—what do the data say?” Public health experts should similarly ask themselves, “There's probably evidence on the best way to communicate this—what do the data say?”

Ask for help. If you have communications staff on your team, they almost certainly have encountered the same challenge you're facing, have tried different solutions, and can tell you what works best. They'll be thrilled you asked.

To learn more about Hattaway Communications' research informing the Public Health Reaching Across Sectors (PHRASES) initiative, visitwww.PHRASES.org.

This piece was excerpted from Talking Health: A New Way to Communicate About Public Health, published by Oxford University Press and the de Beaumont Foundation. For more information, visitwww.TalkingHealthBook.org.

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