Ingredients of effective public health campaigns
Public health awareness campaigns are a common part of our lives.
These special calendar moments are intended to capture attention of audiences who may otherwise be unaware of the health issue in question, and why it relates to them.
Special health awareness days, weeks and months are a go-to tactic in the public health campaigner’s toolkit. So much so, that we are swamped with them.
In the US alone, there are nearly as many health observance days signed off by Congress as there are working days of the year.
With so many on the calendar, how can a regular person be expected to keep up, or pay attention?
Research shows that some campaigns are consistently stand-outs in terms of capturing attention, and impacting health-related behaviours.
Here are some of the key ingredients effective public health campaigns have in common.
They have clear air
So many health observance days, so little time…
There is a reason why the World Health Organisation, which exists to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable, limits its annual calendar of “official” health observances to nine days and two weeks.
Why? Partly because WHO needs to be relevant to the world; what is a health crisis for one country may not be a problem to another.
It is also because having too many means campaigns start to cannibalise attention.
Competition for attention doesn’t just come from other health campaigns.
Take Shocktober, a health campaign intended to draw community attention to the need for access to AEDs (automated external defibrillator) during the month of October. While the purpose of this campaign is something we care deeply about, the name is more frequently used as a tag in lead-up to Halloween.
To use a flight analogy: without clear air, campaigns struggle to get off the ground.
An public health campaign doesn’t have to reach everyone in order to be effective. It just needs to resonate with the right people.
Narrowcasting health messaging to specific audiences has become an increasingly adopted method to drive health behavioural change. Contextual examples include AIDS awareness and prevention and prevention of foetal alcohol syndrome.
Knowing who the campaign needs to reach, and targeting all aspects of the campaign to specifically engage those people, improves the likelihood of positive outcomes.
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They have support
A precept of marketing is that repetition breeds retention.
As a health campaigner, no matter how compelling your message, you can only reach as far as your resources will allow.
Having the help of other institutions to help deliver messages and reach target audiences can make a massive difference to the impact, longevity and repeatability of health campaigns.
Supporting delivery partners – such as churches, for example – extend reach and impact of prevention, diagnosis and social service aspects of health campaigns.
Mass media support is another key factor. As this study into dozens of health campaigns concluded:
“Mass media support can produce positive changes or prevent negative changes in health-related behaviours across large populations.”
The holy grail of course, is when a public health campaign enters popular culture. The incorporation of Movember into an episode of The Office (pictured) is a great example. Smile if you love men’s prostates!
How do you know your campaign was a success or not?
The true measure is if harmful health behaviours were reduced, or positive health behaviours improved.
Take this initiative undertaken to address emerging affluent causes of heart disease in urban Sub-Saharan Africa. A clear call-to-action for at-risk people to attend a series of community screening days, in which 78 per cent of the 1,691 participants were found to exhibit at least one risk factor contributing to heart disease.
Beyond achieving immediate health outcomes for those individuals, this pilot study also represented the foundations of what could become an ongoing campaign to drive awareness, and improve positive health behaviours, in these communities.
…which leads in to the last point. Is the campaign repeatable, and sustainable?
Some of the best-known public health campaigns of the modern era have been built over time. We mentioned Movember earlier; another, World Heart Day, is also close to our…well, you get the idea.
Do they work?
Under optimal conditions, public health campaigns can be effective in raising awareness and changing health-related behaviours.
The conclusion of this 10-year retrospective review found that campaigns that were targeted, well-executed and supported can translate into major public health impacts.
Any campaign that intends to reduce harmful, and promote positive health behaviours is worthy of our attention. The challenge, in our information-overloaded, media-saturated, busy societies, is to actually capture that attention.
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