Nitin Mantri
Guest Article

The evolving tenets of public health communication

Our guest author decodes how public health communicators are using cutting edge digital technologies to connect strongly with their audiences.

Conversations about impactful public health campaigns always make me think of the 2014 initiative for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease, more popularly known as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Remember that one?

Okay, I agree that watching everyone - from Lady Gaga to the lady next door - post videos of drenching themselves with ice cold water did eventually get tiresome. But there is no denying that the Ice Bucket Challenge was a health campaign blockbuster. The initiative generated $115 million for The ALS Association. It also boosted the Association’s capacity to invest in the development of assistive technologies and increased access to care and services for people with ALS. 

The initiative was a great indicator of how public health communication has evolved. Today, it’s no longer about simply sharing information; it’s about making a connection.

New age public health communication

Because public health communication aims at behaviour change for better health choices, connecting with the audience using well-conceived, relevant and sustainable communication strategies, is key to successful outcomes. 

Audiences today have begun to consume information in smarter ways. And, communication strategies have followed suit. More and more campaigns are now driven by smart, human-centric digital tools. New age public health communication is all about merging people and technology, emotions and intellect. It is all about being - what I like to call - cutting edge human.

Being cutting edge human 

What does 'being cutting edge human' mean for public health communication?

People are at the heart of public health communication and their behaviour is the key change driver for achieving desired outcomes. So, unlike the past, when audiences of public health campaigns were mostly segmented based on factors like age, gender, race and marital status, communication strategies today are more intuitive.

Public health campaigns now are grouping audiences based on behaviours that drive action - for instance, their attitudes, interests, beliefs, values and lifestyles. This enables modern campaign strategists to develop better tailored messaging, targeted interventions or recommended actions.

A more intuitive strategy also involves conveying the emotional content in communication more positively. This means reframing negative consequences, in terms of benefits, rather than harm. For example, highlighting the benefits of not smoking, rather than just focussing on the harm done. Or, using stories of recovery and healing, rather than suffering to raise awareness about tuberculosis (TB) treatment. 

With this humanised perspective as the foundational approach, public health communicators are bringing in the entire gamut of cutting edge digital technologies to connect more strongly with their audiences. So, you have public health messages coming to you via apps, chatbots and every social media platform. 

I am sure you are already thinking about the role social media played during COVID. 

Health information, especially during a crisis like the pandemic, can be urgent, confusing or even difficult to access. At the same time, reaching as many citizens as possible, with timely and accurate health messaging, is critical to reducing the spread of the disease. 

During the pandemic, social media platforms gave governments and health agencies the means to communicate with, reassure and educate the community. Apps and chatbots were also brought into play to deliver health information to digitally savvy populations.

Social media was also the weapon of choice for private sector players fighting the COVID battle. 

In 2021, integrated communication firm Avian WE launched an online social and behavioural change communication campaign, Poori Tayyari Hai Kya?, to encourage COVID appropriate behaviour. As digitally inspired communicators, the organisation leveraged trending online content formats - from memes to Instagram Reels - to disseminate messages and drive engagement.

What started as an awareness initiative for Avian WE employees, soon grew into a hugely impactful online campaign. The hashtag, #PooriTayyariHaiKya, recorded a reach of over 1.2 million. Campaign videos, infographics, factoids and Reels garnered a total of 3.37 lakh impressions.

Another public health success story that caught my eye for its cutting edge human design, was Layla’s Got You campaign by non-profit agency Public Good Projects (PGP). The campaign aimed to provide 16-25-year-old Black and Hispanic women in Onondaga County, New York, with a safe, confidential place to find accurate, non-judgmental information about contraception, sexually transmitted disease (STDs) and sexual health. 

PGP recruited 31 local young women to discuss the challenges they encountered, while trying to access information about reproductive health. After conducting focus group discussions with the women, PGP learned that they preferred consulting a confidential, trusted 'friend', who could address their questions. In collaboration with focus group participants, PGP then co-developed a friendly easy-to-talk-to chatbot, Layla.  

Layla used artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing to respond immediately to teens typing in their questions online. Within a year of its launch in 2020, Layla received more than 4,000 unique messages related to contraception or sexual health. The campaign content was displayed online over two million times, suggesting wide sharing and viewing of its content, and the campaign generated almost 33,000 unique audience interactions. 

A more recent campaign that is being driven by the digital-human symbiosis, is a TB awareness campaign launched by Johnson & Johnson India. J&J India launched Be the Change For TB, a youth-focussed, digital-first initiative, as a part of its commitment to the Corporate TB Pledge - a joint initiative with the Central TB Division, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in India, and United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The initiative aims to create a cadre of youth changemakers, who can act as catalysts of change to help eliminate TB from the country. 

Powered largely by social media, the campaign onboarded Bollywood actor Vaani Kapoor, and hip hop artist and lyricist Kunal Pandagle, also known as Kaam Bhaari, as champions for the cause.

Within three months of its launch in March this year, the campaign recorded an overall reach of 44 million and 222 million impressions in the 18-29-year-old target audience across digital platforms. More than 32,000 youth (that is 82% of the intended target audience) signed up as changemakers within this time period.

Icing on the cake

One of the biggest advantages of human-centred digital technologies in public health communication, is that they facilitate a two-way conversation between the messenger and the audience. Thus, health agencies can analyse audience reactions in real time, assess outcomes and re-evaluate the messaging, which allow course correction and quality improvements in the campaigns. 

Moreover, digital tools provide data. So, not only are outcomes measurable, but they can be analysed and visualised to build powerful narratives around public health issues, help monitor and understand health indicators, and draw up hyper accurate health reports and remediation plans. 

In conclusion

As a public relation (PR) and communication practitioner, I resonate with American journalist Sydney J. Harris’s thoughts on the difference between the words, 'information' and 'communication'. According to Harris, although they are often used interchangeably, they are essentially very different. “Information is giving out; communication is getting through,” Harris said.

And, I believe the cutting edge human approach is doing exactly that. It is revolutionising public health communication to ‘get through’ faster, more effectively and with greater impact than ever before.

(Nitin Mantri is group CEO, Avian WE)

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