A key challenge facing health professionals is to mobilize the power of mass communication and social media to empower individuals to adopt healthy behaviors, direct policy makers’ attention to important health issues, and frame those issues for public debate and resolution.
In 1985, to address this challenge, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health established the first-ever Center for Health Communication (CHC) within an academic institution and appointed Dr. Jay Winsten as its founding director. Winsten has led the CHC’s work for the past thirty-five years; Susan Moses, the CHC’s deputy director, has been on board since 1990.
The CHC’s mission has been three-fold:
- To demonstrate how an academic institution could mobilize the immense power of mass communication to inform the development of public policies and promote the adoption of healthy behaviors among large populations;
- To strengthen the quality and prominence of news coverage of public health issues, including through development of mid-career educational programs for journalists; and
- To prepare future leaders in public health to handle the practical, hands-on communication aspects of their work.
The CHC’s best known initiative is the National Designated Driver Campaign, which introduced the designated driver concept into the American culture and contributed to a 25% decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.
Starting July 1, 2021, the CHC’s public health campaigns are conducted under the auspices of the School’s Initiative on Media Strategies for Public Health, a newly created unit led by Winsten and Moses.
The Initiative on Media Strategies for Public Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health will launch Project Look Out on April 15, 2021 to tackle a vexing problem of growing concern in road safety: Distracted Driving. April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.
According to official U.S. estimates, distracted driving is responsible for over 1,000,000 crashes, 400,000 injuries, and 3,000 fatalities in the U.S. each year. Studies suggest that the actual number of casualties linked to distracted driving is considerably higher.
Thanks to numerous efforts over the past decade, public awareness of the distracted driving problem is now widespread. However, driver behavior has remained largely resistant to change.
An intriguing new message for distracted driving campaigns is suggested by findings from public opinion surveys, conducted by several insurance companies, in which large majorities of respondents consistently say they are concerned about becoming a victim of a distracted driving crash caused by another driver. For example, in the Travelers Risk Index, 71% of respondents expressed this fear.
These findings suggest an opportunity to promote a more persuasive rationale for avoiding distractions that is grounded in self-interest:
A driver cuts you off. Traffic suddenly halts. Keep your guard up, and your phone down.
Project Look Out will promote this message along with one aimed at protecting vulnerable road users:
Each year, thousands of pedestrians and cyclists are struck and killed on U.S. roads. Drivers do your part: Keep your guard up, and your phone down.
The campaign will mobilize social media influencers to widely share the campaign’s messages, and Hollywood writers to depict passengers intervening when a driver becomes distracted.
Development of Project Look Out has been made possible by a grant from General Motors and gifts from the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation and the Frank Stanton Foundation.
From 1988-1994, CHC mobilized all the major Hollywood studios and television networks in a landmark, prime-time media campaign that changed the American culture by achieving widespread awareness, acceptance, and usage of the “designated driver” concept, thereby contributing to a 25% decline in annual alcohol-related traffic fatalities. A 2002 report from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation observed, “The National Designated Driver Campaign, developed by the Harvard School of Public Health’s Center for Health Communication, is widely considered to be the first successful effort to partner with the Hollywood community to promote health messages in prime-time programming.” In 1994, the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported, “Many grant makers say it was the success of the [designated driver] campaign that persuaded them that skillful work with news and entertainment media can bring about social change.”
From 1994-1997, the CHC conducted a national campaign — Squash It! — to curb violence among urban youth by recruiting leading rap-music artists and sports figures to promote a social norm that says, “Sometimes, by walking away from a confrontation, you can prove yourself to be the bigger person.” Partners included leading television networks, Hollywood studios, National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), and National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA). Survey data revealed a positive shift over three years in acceptance of the walk-away message among key target groups. In a parallel initiative, the CHC convened a series of invitational forums to mobilize the support of policy makers for expansion of evidence-based youth programs offering positive alternatives to violence. Based in part on findings from the forums, which featured extensive input from young people as well as policy experts, the CHC developed a national media campaign to recruit large numbers of volunteer mentors to help young people achieve their full potential.
From 1997-2015, CHC spearheaded the Harvard Mentoring Project, a national media campaign to recruit volunteer mentors for young people from underprivileged backgrounds. Conducted in collaboration with MENTOR: National Mentoring Partnership, with media support provided by Hollywood studios and television networks, the campaign is credited with helping to greatly expand the annual number of young people receiving the benefits of formal mentoring programs from 300,000 in 1997 to 3.5 million in 2015.
In 2007, Dean Barry Bloom and the CHC joined forces to tackle Hollywood’s depiction of tobacco smoking and its adverse influence on initiation of smoking by young people. Building on the work of other advocates, the effort proved successful in persuading the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which represented all Hollywood studios, to change its movie rating policy to take into account, for the first time, a film’s depiction of tobacco smoking.
Over the past 35 years, the CHC convened groups of scholars, journalists, advocates, and public officials for numerous workshops and conferences to consider how mass communication shapes society’s ability to deal with pressing problems; influences public policy by raising the prominence of issues on the public, media, and governmental agendas; reinforces or alters social norms and attitudes; and promotes individual behavioral changes. Through its analyses, the CHC developed and published recommendations for the design of future media campaigns; analyzed changes in the media landscape and their implications for social marketing efforts; and developed guides for conducting community-based communication initiatives.
Education and Training
Course — ID 284
Lessons gained from the CHC media campaigns directly benefited Harvard Chan students through school-wide seminars and a highly rated course on practical skills in health communication co-taught by Dr. Jay Winsten (lead instructor), Prof. Howard Koh, and Assistant Dean and former Washington Post health reporter Robin Herman. The course, ID 284, provided students with an overview of the media environment, and taught practical skills for handling interviews and press conferences; writing press releases and opinion articles; delivering effective messages during public health emergencies and institutional crises; and developing and implementing mass media campaigns to achieve health-promoting behavioral and policy changes. The course also included on-camera practice opportunities for each student. Guest lecturers included public officials, journalists, and other communication experts. Taught from 2004 to 2010, the highly popular course went into hiatus when Professor Koh and Assistant Dean Herman took leaves from Harvard Chan. Subsequently, the CHC continued to sponsor a School-wide seminar program that brought leading practitioners to the School from the worlds of social marketing, advertising, public relations, and broadcasting.
Harvard Journalism Fellowship for Advanced Studies in Public Health
In 1987, the CHC created the first-ever, mid-career fellowship for journalists who specialize in covering public health. Between 1987-1995, 27 journalists participated in the fellowship program, and ten fellows published books based on research they conducted at Harvard. Of special note, News and Numbers: A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields, was written by Victor Cohn of The Washington Post with guidance of Professor Frederick Mosteller. Cohn’s primer became a leading textbook at schools of journalism and is in widespread use today. Pulitzer Prize winner Laurie Garrett’s book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, was based in large part on research conducted during her fellowship year.
Starting in 2006, the CHC and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism jointly sponsored a specialized journalism fellowship program for global health reporting with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The goal was to help ensure that committed, well-trained journalists would continue to highlight critical problems and solutions in global health. The fellowships included a full academic year in residence at Harvard, followed by three months of fieldwork in a developing country. Nine Global Health Fellows participated in the program from 2006 to 2009.
World Health News
To help strengthen the breadth and depth of news coverage of public health, from 1999 to 2014, the CHC published World Health News, a weekly online digest of news stories and commentaries from newspapers from around the world (with links to original articles) to share with journalists the work of their peers on issues in public health. World Health News also served as a resource for an international audience of policymakers, public health researchers, practitioners, and advocates.