PHRASES Offers New Tools for Talking About Public Health
by Sheryl Monks
It’s been said that when public health is working, nothing happens because the 3 Ps upon which public health rests, according to C.E.A. Winslow’s definition — “preventing disease, prolonging life, and promoting physical health” — are being effectively carried out. It isn’t until a disease outbreak like the current COVID-19 pandemic that the general public hears much of anything about the work being done by the public health community. And even then, the true breadth and depth of public health work is often poorly understood and largely undervalued.
But it’s difficult to explain what public health is to non-experts, who often assume that public health is simply a specialized part of the health care system. It’s important to distinguish public health from health care and to help the public understand what public health is, what it does, and why it matters so that individuals and communities will actually support the work we do.
The de Beaumont Foundation and the Aspen Institute have collaborated on a new initiative called PHRASES (Public Health Reaching Across Sectors) that provides an array of communication tools to help public health professionals describe their work to people in their communities in ways that they’ll understand, appreciate, remember, and talk about with others.
Staff at the de Beaumont Foundation and the Aspen Institute’s Health, Medicine, and Society Program worked with FrameWorks Institute and Hattaway Communications to study the research on public health communications, conduct in-depth interviews with public health practitioners, and gain insights from several focus groups of community members from various walks of life to better understand their perceptions of public health.
What They Learned
After looking at the published research on public health communications as well as lessons from social psychology and cognitive science, the team tested a range of language and messages on people of various ages, genders, races, ethnicities, education and income levels, and political ideologies. Here’s some of what they uncovered:
- It’s easier for our brains to process abstract ideas when they’re expressed as actions. Using active verbs to describe public health work makes it easier for people to understand what the field of public health does.
- Vivid language that evokes an image is easier to understand and remember. Consider vivid, tangible language such as “clean air and safe neighborhoods” when you convey the value of public health.
- The more easily people understand information, the more likely they are to trust it. Conversely, complexity reduces our ability to think and makes us less likely to understand and believe the information in front of us. When people hear an unfamiliar word, their brains scan verbal memory for clues to its meaning. As their attention turns to this, they literally do not hear what is being said next—and can miss the whole point.
- Less isn’t always more. Translating jargon into plain language can result in longer phrases or sentences—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Think of brevity as how quickly your audience can process what you’re saying, not just how many words you’re using to express it.
Motivating the Public to Support Public Health
With so much information (and misinformation) floating around, it’s more important than ever to clearly articulate the work that public health does to prevent disease and injury, prolong life, and promote physical and mental health and well-being. With good communication, we can leverage the way people intuitively think about their own health, differentiate public health from health care, and motivate people to support public health efforts in their own communities.
The PHRASES website provides a number of great tools and resources, many of which include language you can use verbatim or tailor for your particular needs, things like strategic messaging, “winning words,” and even sample email messages to initiate partnerships. But the resource I found most helpful is the Toolkit for Communicating with Non-experts, which walks you through the process of developing these four ways to articulate what public health is and why it matters:
- Public Health Impact Formula — Articulate the role of public health in a way that’s clear and motivating to non-experts.
- Unique Value Proposition — Describe the value delivered by public health and set it apart from other fields.
- Narrative Structure — Help people understand the “story” of public health.
- One-Minute Message — Express key ideas from the “story” of public health in a message that can be spoken out loud in about a minute.
Sheryl Monks is the editorial associate for the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. She manages JPHMP Direct.