We’re always on the lookout for resources that inspire us and help us communicate better. That’s why a recent post over at the Berkeley Media Studies Group blog -- 7 things advocates should know when communicating about health equity -- got us so excited. The author, Katherine Schaff, is pursuing her DrPH at UC Berkeley, and working closely with BMSG to study communications and health equity. Here’s a snippet that explains why she felt the need to write the blog:
“Why, I wondered, was I struggling to explain the work that inspired so much passion and urgency for me? And if I couldn't explain it to someone in casual conversation, how could I possibly communicate about such a crucial public health issue in a way that resonates with people and helps build collective action toward creating healthy communities?”
We caught up with Katherine to hear more about how advocates can effectively communicate for change to advance health equity.
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Q: What prompted you to develop the blog?
A: As public health practitioners work to address health inequities, we are communicating with groups addressing issues ranging from transportation to criminal justice, along with residents, policymakers and the media. I think practitioners are looking for resources because they realize that effective communication is essential to advancing health equity efforts. I developed the blog to highlight some of the resources that have been most helpful to me.
Q: Why is it critical for the health field to communicate effectively about equity to the partners, policymakers, and the media?
A: Achieving health equity requires work on many levels, and one level is community-driven systems and policy change. Once we arrive at the policy that needs to change, the system that needs to shift, or the community demand that must be honored, we have to communicate this effectively to those who have the power to make the change. Because policymakers follow the news, it’s important to be able to talk about health equity to the media. And because we are partnering with multiple organizations, we need to be able to communicate with diverse organizations effectively. As Makani Themba points out, “how we communicate and how we build base and power are inextricably linked.” So if we in public health are working in partnership with community-based groups to create healthy communities, we need to consider how to do this in a way that advances justice, both in the outcomes, and the process, as we join together in this work.
Q: We in public health understand the meaning of the term "health equity." But it's not well understood by other sectors or the general public. How can we talk about it in a way that resonates with those outside public health?
A: There are certainly venues – like when we talk to a reporter or speak at a press conference -- when time constraints limit the amount of context we can provide. Rather than using a term that a lot of people may not understand, we can offer specific examples of what we call health equity or health inequities. For example, we can highlight vivid examples that show the injustices that underlies inequitable health outcomes and we can focus on the ways that existing systems create and maintain these injustices. We can talk about some of the values that underlie health equity – such as justice and fairness. And we can ensure that people experiencing the injustice firsthand are at the forefront of communications efforts so their accounts are used to tell the story. I don’t think we want to shy away from the meaning behind health equity—that there are unfair, unjust, avoidable, and preventable differences in health that we can and must address. The key is being able to show—not merely tell—how these inequities matter and that there are viable ways to address them.
Q: What are some good strategies for communicating about equity issues with the media?
A: At Berkeley Media Studies Group, the oft-repeated “golden rule” is that you can’t have a media strategy without having an overall strategy. Advocates can improve their work a great deal by focusing in on an overall strategy, including clear identification of what we want to change and the decision-making body that can change it. The communication, media, and message strategies flow from there. In public health, we often conduct a lot of research on the issues we are tackling and we often want to provide a comprehensive explanation of an entire issue—whether it’s food access or the link between transportation and health. But BMSG reminds us that “you can’t be strategic and comprehensive at the same time.” Telling a reporter everything we know about food access and health isn’t a good strategy. It’s also not a story. Having an overall strategy lets us hone in on the story – the problem, why it matters, and the solution we seek to achieve.
Read Kathi’s blog: “Seven things advocates should know when communicating about health equity.”
More on making the case for health equity: Prevention Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released A Practitioners Guide for Advancing Health Equity, which contains strategies to help practitioners incorporate health equity into communications and other foundational skills of public health.