‘Look deeper and go local’ when crafting public health messages in turbulent political environments

June 13, 2017

Gene Matthews, JD

Gene Matthews, JD

In light of ongoing political and resource shifts taking place in health care, some public health practitioners doubt their ability to promote important messages effectively. Gene Matthews, JD, senior investigator in the North Carolina Institute for Public Health in the UNC Gillings School of Global Pubic Health, recently shared tips for crafting richer public health messages with the potential to impact policy makers and at-risk communities across political lines.

The full article, titled “Crafting Richer Public Health Messages for A Turbulent Political Environment,” was published online in advance of the July/August issue of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. Adjunct professor Edward L. Baker, Jr., MD, MPH, who teaches in the health policy and management department in the Gillings School, was a co-author.

The messaging framework the authors share is based on the reality that most state and local health departments do not have the legal resources to shape public health policy. Instead, they must advocate to others in positions of political power.

“And, when public health takes its evidence and expertise into the political realm — when the effort is made to convince lawmakers and the public to adopt new policies — we still tend to speak in narrow terms of lives saved, harms prevented, costs avoided,” the authors wrote. “We are still, even in our storytelling, too reflexively reliant on science.”

This quote highlights a key point of the article: Intuition is often more influential than reason and logic. Therefore, the authors suggest a messaging approach that draws on Moral Foundations Theory, which suggests that six intuitive moral values shape the way the public considers a range of issues.

Rather than framing policy arguments solely through the lens of “liberal-flavored” values like Care, Liberty and Fairness – an approach that has become increasingly common among public health practitioners in recent decades – they recommend crafting messages that also include the more “conservative” values of Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity. With this framework, outreach efforts should connect with stakeholders across a broader spectrum, including individuals and communities that are committed to the preservation of institutions and traditions.

To illustrate this point, the authors include three examples of successful messages from North Carolina, which currently is a highly politically divided state. The examples were drawn from 1) a campaign to legalize needle exchange, 2) the use of GIS mapping to target interventions in high-need communities and 3) the practice of faith-based health outreach. Advocacy in these cases focused on values such as sound economics, respect for the law and compassion for families to make core messages compelling across political lines.

The authors conclude that the key to crafting messages that resonate with all communities is to “look deeper and go local,” thereby helping legislators understand that public health issues have real economic and social consequences in their own communities. By targeting messages to a broader audience and emphasizing emotions/morals over pure scientific logic, practitioners can expand their audience and enhance support for policies that promote the public’s health.

Matthews frequently presents this material at events and conferences. He is next scheduled to share at a half-day training for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials in July, followed by a presentation at the American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting in November.


Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or dpesci@unc.edu

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