Can your residents describe what your local health department does? In 2002, only 29% of residents served by the Yellowstone City-County Health Department (now RiverStone Health) in Billings, MT could say that they had ever heard of the health department. However, thanks to the health department leadership’s investments in a rebranding effort, 10 years later, 88% of residents were able to identify the health department’s name and services offered.
Creating and implementing a departmental brand strategy and plan like RiverStone Health conveys the value of the department’s practices, products, and services and is one of many foundational communication and marketing capabilities. Communications is a critical mission of local health departments that informs and educates residents about health. However, NACCHO’s 2013 National Profile of Local Health Departments indicates that 41% of local health departments were subject to a workforce reduction and only 32% of the nation’s 2,800 local health departments employ a public information officer or communications specialist. Further, research estimates that only 61% of local health departments meet accreditation standards for communication with constituents about public health issues and health risks.
When health department resources are limited, it can be difficult to invest in communications. But the investment in communications staff can ensure that information is exchanged via multiple channels and that the public receives critical health information. For instance, a 2014 study of Twitter communications capacity at local health departments found that local health departments with a public information officer on staff have a higher proportion of local followers on Twitter and increased access to local media on Twitter than local health departments without a public information officer. The study suggests that those wishing to reach their local residents would be able to do so with more resources dedicated and priority given to social media efforts.
The ability to communicate clearly, concisely, and persuasively to the public is especially critical during an emergency. Emergency public information and warning and information sharing are two of CDC’s public health preparedness capabilities, underscoring the need for local health departments to incorporate communications into their preparedness and response plans and exercise their communications plans before an emergency. It is important for local health departments to develop relationships with their local, state, and national media outlets in non-emergency times so that these relationships can be leveraged during a crisis to rapidly disseminate vital messages. Additionally, investing in the development of a risk communications strategy, in accordance with Public Health Accreditation Board standards, to guide the health department’s communications and media protocols during an emergency can serve to raise awareness about the necessary actions to protect the public’s health. During the measles outbreak in Disneyland in 2015, the Orange County (CA) Health Care Agency followed its risk communications protocol with the media by sharing messages to keep the public calm while emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated and getting vaccinated on time.
Further, successful communications planning requires the ability to conduct formative research to create audience-driven and culturally and linguistically appropriate campaigns and messages. For example, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has developed educational materials in English and many other languages useful to different communities within the city. Their multilingual efforts proved effective during the height of Ebola in late 2014 when volunteers with the New York City Medical Reserve Corps engaged in external outreach efforts to educate the city’s West African population about their risk of contracting Ebola.
As local health departments build healthier communities, it is critical to invest in communications, marketing, and public relations capacities. To provide local health departments with an outline of capabilities that public health communicators should be trained in, NACCHO’s Public Health Communications Committee developed a fact sheet, “Communication and Marketing: A Foundational Capability for Local Health Departments.” This committee, comprised of 11 local health department officials, public information officers, and communications specialists, raises awareness of the foundational capabilities specific to communication and marketing. The committee recommends that public health communicators be trained in media relations and public information, planning, communications channels and products, communication training and capacity building, and evaluation to ensure their work fosters healthier and safer communities. To learn more about the specific trainings recommended for each capability, view the factsheet.
- Schneeman, B. “Branding Public Health: One Local Health Department’s Journey to Raising Visibility.” Conference presentation, NACCHO Annual 2013, July 12, 2013.
- Harris J.K., Choucair B., Maier R.C., Jolani N., & Bernhardt J.M. (2014). Are public health organizations tweeting to the choir? Understanding local health department Twitter followership. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 16(2). Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3961708/.
- Zahn, M. “Measles Outbreak and Community Messaging in Orange County, 2015.” Conference presentation, NACCHO Annual 2015, July 7, 2015.