3 practices for public health communicators

Clear, succinct, empathetic language is vital for those in this arena. Special handling is called for when medical advisories conflict, as in the case of flu shots for pregnant women. What, then?


Administrators in health care and public policy must be adept in varied communication practices.

In addition to effectively disseminating information to the public, they have to be mindful of messaging guidelines within the workplace and beyond.

External communication tips

One key thing a public administrator can do when working with the public is to practice active listening . When meeting with community leaders and residents, administrators should demonstrate comprehension, processing of nonverbal cues, and the ability to restate key issues while responding to feedback. The importance of community buy-in cannot be overstated, as the success of programs relies on securing widespread support.

Administrators should always make themselves available for input via email, social media and public gatherings. Public administrators must ensure that mass messaging is critically analyzed and tailored to the particular purpose, context and audience. Messaging should be articulate, focused and cognizant of diversity.

Internal communication strategies

At a conference on communications in public health administration, Dragan Cuzulan said, “Without effective internal and external communication, there is no effective public administration that would in the best way respond to the citizens’ needs.”

Though public communicators are seldom part of executive management, they usually are experienced in the field. All parties involved in disseminating information should be on the same page regarding what goes out to the public.

Internal communication should focus on carefully filtering what is and isn’t shared, to minimize overreaction and panic.

For example, the dramatic public response to Ebola in the U.S. was unwarranted, according to Tara Kirk Sell . She recommends eliminating the phrase “out of an abundance of caution,” as well as communicating uncertainty when it exists.

Facts and Integrity

The public often wants scientific, medical and health care recommendations to be 100 percent accurate. Because science offers no guarantees, administrators must counter misinformation and rumors with truth and facts.

For example, when giving advice to women about dealing with flu symptoms during pregnancy , it’s both true that medications should ideally be avoided during the first 12 weeks of gestation and that pregnant women with flu symptoms should be treated immediately with antiviral medications.

Because both are true, public health information should be carefully disseminated in the event of an influenza outbreak, and the safety of vaccines should be stressed—especially considering that flu vaccinations greatly reduce the risk of infection and complications.

What, in your experience, are crucial guidelines when communicating health-related information to the public? Please share your opinion in the comments section.

Daphne Stanford is a writer and radio host. Follow her on Twitter: @TPS_on_KRBX .

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