Erynne Jones
Erynne Jones

Last week, the New York Times posted an opinion piece on the merits of public health initiatives. The authors, economist Austin Frakt and pediatrician Aaron E. Carroll, make the case that public health campaigns deliver outsized return on investment in term of broadly improving health in the U.S. in areas such as smoking and diabetes.

Interestingly, a central point to the article states what I believe is a herald for public relations professionals. Under the subheading, “Public health needs better public relations,” the authors write: “Perhaps the biggest change needed is for public health to do a better job at trumpeting its success. Too often, it seems to be the unsung hero.”

Indeed, while public health agencies do a great job of creating solutions, they often fall short communicating their approaches and successes. This point deserves greater examination for public relations professionals.

“Public health” encompasses all the programs, policies, and practices needed to keep populations of people, and the communities in which they live, healthy—both in and outside of the clinical setting.

I’ve worked in various positions in public health for more than a decade, beginning on the policy and regulatory side of public health, and now in public relations. Like Mr. Frakt and Dr. Carroll, it is surprising to me how many innovative approaches and breakthrough results are achieved but go unrecognized.

Most of us are familiar with the major public health headlines: the opioid crisis and continuing confusion around what to do to resolve it; the devastating impact that water contamination continues to have on communities in Flint, Michigan; the recently announced record-high S.T.D. rate.

But the State Targeted Response to Opioid Crisis Grants? The impact of the U.S. Public Health Services Act State Loan Repayment Program funding on physician shortages? The myriad innovations being done via Section 1115 Demonstration Waivers? All these programs are achieving amazing results, yet their impact is not being touted to a broader audience in an easy-to-understand way.

Public health professionals should seek to be more familiar with how thoughtfully planning out a public relations strategy could enhance public health initiatives. Some public agencies might feel like they shouldn’t use public money to promote their success, not realizing that publicity for a successful and innovative campaign doesn’t solely benefit their organization; it translates to additional outreach and education about the programs being implemented. Communicating approaches, lessons learned, and successes helps to expand the adoption of solutions.

Based on some first-hand observations and best practices, here are some thoughts on elevating public relations in public health:

Name and brand the campaign. Often, a public health strategy consists of multiple funding streams and a variety of projects. Determining the core concept, developing strong messaging, and tying all project activities back to a main purpose is critical to creating a program that from the outside, looks seamless.

Take the time to test the campaign. If on a budget, collect individual feedback. For example, we worked with a client to test a public health campaign with 50 professionals in public health, physicians, and patients prior to launch. We learned that our core messages were on track. However, we also learned that in ethnically diverse California, we needed materials that appealed to a variety of different languages and cultures, meaning catchy messaging needed to be reworked to have the right impact when translated.

Create materials that are written for public health stakeholders, but also inform the general public. Fact sheets, social media messages, blog entries, and newsletter content speak plainly and clearly to multiple audiences. In the digital age, readers and viewers respond to images in addition to words—well-designed charts and infographics can convey messages as well as, and sometimes better than, written narratives. Conducting audience research prior to rolling out a public health campaign will help identify targeted channels for effective outreach, taking into account audience demographics, regional variations, and cultural considerations.

Encourage buy-in early from partners and key opinion leaders. Develop a strategy for working with both partner organizations (large groups such as trade associations that represent and speak on behalf of a collective group of stakeholders) and with key opinion leaders (well-respected individuals in the field with outsized influence on large populations). For example, partner organizations representing healthcare professionals in rural areas will generally speak to memberships with more formalized messages. Key opinion leaders can deliver similar messages but in a more conversational tone.

Work with public relations professionals. This seems like an obvious point. However, many public health agencies take a “go-it-alone” approach in developing a public health initiative, often viewing a partnership with an outside entity as something reserved for the commercial space. In doing so, they miss out on the benefit of working with a public relations professional or agency that has multifaceted experiences and practices in areas like messaging, media relations, social media, speech and presentation writing, and multimedia production. Partnership with a public relations firm can free up staff resources to focus on other essential components of the program while ensuring that the public health initiative is appropriately messaged and thoughtfully executed.

Positive publicity and strategic communications can result in opening doors for future funding for public health initiatives, showcasing the work public health professionals have done, and potentially expanding the reach of their programs to the communities that need it most. So, let’s roll up our sleeves, extend a hand, and make sure these great stories don’t go untold.


Erynne Jones, MPH, handles public relations duties for KP Public Affairs in Sacramento, CA.