by Richard Besser
Communication is a critical arm of public health, not an afterthought. Many times we do all we can to avoid talking about our work. We fear that we might say the wrong thing, or that it's a distraction to what our work really is. And that's a big mistake—for a couple of reasons.
First, communication is an important tool for making sure that your findings lead to true improvements in public health.
Second, communication puts a face on public health so people understand what it is you do. That's going to do a number of things. It's going to ensure that you have the resources to get the job done—and that's a critically important thing in the current economy. If you don't do that, the only time people are going to think about public health is when these systems fail.
There's a truism in public health, and it's that you can do every single thing right during a response, but if the public doesn't know what you're doing, and doesn't trust you, you've failed. And to gain that trust, you need to communicate. I was acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009 when the swine flu pandemic hit, and we decided that in addition to everything else we did at CDC—case investigations, hospital infection control, laboratory support, border policy—we were going to make communication a central part of our response.
We told people what we knew when we knew it. We told them what we didn't know and what we were doing to get answers. And every morning and evening I took to the airways for the news shows. Every afternoon I hosted a press conference. We made sure that CDC experts were available to any news outlet that wanted to know anything about the response.
And the efforts paid off. Increasing numbers of people said that if they got sick, they would stay home. They understood that hand-washing was a critical part of preventing flu transmission. And the trust in government was as high as it'd ever been seen for a health crisis in the U.S.
ABC News had been participating and watching the news conferences, and they liked what they saw, and they offered me a job. It struck me that if I really cared about impact, I needed to go retail. This is something that public health has to take seriously. We look at populations. We aggregate data. But often we forget about those people that we're serving, whose lives we're trying to improve. We forget to tell those stories about them and their lives and the impact that what we do has on their lives. And that's what I'm trying to do.
These remarks are adapted from Richard Besser's graduation address to the U-M SPH Class of 2014. Besser, MD, is the chief health and medical editor for ABC News and a past acting director (2009) of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A New Voice
Utibe Effiong's efforts to change the world date back to childhood, when he became class representative in his grade school in Lagos, Nigeria. He knew then he "wanted to speak for people who couldn't speak for themselves, or were too shy or too afraid to do so."
Effiong, MD, MPH '14, now dreams of being a health minister or a senator for the Federal Republic of Nigeria or even an ambassador to the United Nations. He'd like to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization at what he calls "the intersection of infectious disease and environmental health."
But first he wants to hone his communication skills. Last year he applied for—and won —an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellowship, designed to bring greater numbers of expert voices from the developing world into the "global development discussion." During his fellowship year, Effiong and 11 other New Voices fellows got extensive training on how to speak at major events, write op-eds and think pieces for major news outlets, and create galvanizing social media platforms. In between training sessions they received weekly writing prompts and coaching. By mid-May, Effiong had published his first opinion piece, "Why Ebola isn't just Africa's problem," in the Detroit Free Press.
Supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the New Voices Fellowship program aims to identify and nurture a new generation of global development "champions" able to share their stories, insights, and research on multiple media platforms. The hope is that the insights and experiences of these experts will help guide policy in such key areas as public health, education, agriculture, and the environment.
Effiong says the fellowship taught him the importance of using his own experience to illustrate larger issues. "When you tie something to your real-life story, people can feel. You more or less step off your academic pedestal and become one of the people."
And Don't Forget the Power of Stories ...
Screenwriter and director Monte Montgomery, who works with SPH faculty to incorporate storytelling into their presentations, says a story "can make you a more effective presenter. Stories, unlike lists of facts, make it easier for listeners to engage—and a protagonist makes it easier for audiences to get invested emotionally."
It's our human nature, he adds. "Stories are how we remember. We're not built to memorize facts or lists—we're built to remember narrative." Montgomery advises researchers to think of themselves not as scientists or teachers but as performers, and to ask, "What does my audience want to see and hear?"