Strategic Health Communication in a New Age


To respond effectively to the growing epidemics of AIDS and TB around the world, a strategy for communicating messages that influence individual behavior change, community attitudes and socio-political dynamics is absolutely critical.

In order to make communication effective, there is a need to fully and rigorously understand the audiences, including contextual factors (political, cultural, economic, gender etc.) that determine the health choices people make.

The underlying factor is that communication does not occur within a vacuum, and thus it is essential to be aware of elements that may deter effective communication in the design, distribution and measurement of AIDS or TB messages.

Communication that saves people's lives, improves health and enhances well being is about ideas, creativity, research, knowledge and money. Given the fact that resources are finite, strategic communication needs to consciously build upon existent social capital to ensure sustainability of processes.

Strategic communication can help to shape context and build relationships that enhance the achievement of objectives to respond effectively to AIDS and TB.

To be effective, strategic communicators must understand attitudes and cultures, respect the importance of ideas, adopt advanced information technologies, and employ sophisticated communication skills and strategies. To be persuasive, they must be credible.

More importantly, strategic communication for better health appreciates what works scientifically combined with flexibility to adapt it to specific cultural contexts.

As already stated, it should go beyond simply addressing individual behaviour to structural and institutional realities that are largely responsible for driving diseases and epidemics. In many ways, public policies tend to be responsible for social and health inequalities and cannot be ignored in the communication process.

Therefore, an effective communication strategy puts people and structural realities at its heart in the design, development, implementation and evaluation of messages.

In essence, strategic communication for better health needs to be informed by a process that identifies behaviours and attitudes, identifies policy priorities, and embarks on a process to influence a broad section of society through appropriate themes and messages.

In that respect, communication is not an end goal, but rather a means to influence dialogue and engagement through relevant mediums.

Laboring over which medium to choose when targeting a specific audience is a critical component in the communication for health process. In many ways, the medium defines the message in as much as does the target audience. A chosen medium has its limitations, and key messages and themes have to be aligned to the limitations of the medium to ensure effective message delivery. Obviously, the research-based needs of a target audience determine what delivery mechanisms to utilize.

It is important to know at the outset what goal seeks to be achieved with the particular choice of a medium so that the measurements of success or failure are specified.

Events, activities, messages, and materials must be designed with your objectives, audiences, partnerships and resources clearly in place. Building a communication strategy is about directing and focusing evidence-based messages and themes according to clearly defined pathways to achieve intended objectives.

The process of strategically positioning communication needs to ensure the participation of intended beneficiaries in the designing of messages, no matter what the level of focus.

Strategic communications shifts away from communicating to, and instead focuses on communicating with target groups in order to establish solutions., with emphasis being on how to build a relationship that allows for communication to take place so that appropriate action is taken. In that sense it is a significant shift from the magic bullet theory of communication which treats audiences as inactive recipients of messages.

Fact-based communication research is necessary for demonstrating and validating the need for resources required to increase the impact of communication. It is also essential that message platform for key initiatives are identified through the research process.

New media offers a significant opportunity to unify organizational health communications in order to achieve that inner coherence which is often times based on the vision, mission, goals and values of the organization.

New media offer an opportunity to encourage conversation and promote collaboration in creating appropriate messages. It is essential to integrate social media into the communication infrastructure and tap into its potential to create dialogue and reach a wide audience. New media make it cheaper, easier and faster to communicate and collaborate, and is an essential element to public health communications.

The ability of new information tools to alter the way we communicate needs to be tapped into but as with any component of the health communication process the focus must be on people and not just the technology.

Overall, a strategic communication process needs to be planned, directed, coordinated, funded, measured and conducted in ways that promote the wellbeing of individual in a manner that aligns with organizational values and goals.

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To schedule an interview with Masimba Biriwasha please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.