Opinion: 12 communication best practices for public health leaders

Hoai An Pham, a member of the MPH Class of 2024 at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public HealthHoai An Pham is a member of the MPH Class of 2024 at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She drafted the following list of communications best practices for public health leaders as part of the Fall 2022 Harvard Chan class “Engaging the Media: A Practical Look At Public Health Communication.”  

I prepared the following communication do’s and don’ts to guide public health leaders facing a public health emergency created by a previously unknown pathogen. 

#1. Lead with our shared values. Understand that people are scared, and looking to us as a guide. As public health practitioners, we can both reassure and encourage them. Our public health agency will be effective and impactful because we value care and dignity for all, with no exceptions. No matter who we are or where we come from, most of us share the same goals of getting through this crisis together, leaving no one behind. 

#2. Know our audience. Who are the people in our communities that we want to reach? What are their cultures? What are their education levels? 

#3. Remind people of our history and allow it to guide our present and future. Remain empathetic in the face of your immense stress and responsibility. A lot of people are scared and feel helpless. While this pathogen is new, we have gone through crisis together before, and our learnings are guiding us today. 

#4. Remind people that we are a team: use the words we, our, or together. Do not fall into fear-mongering narratives that pit us against each other. We know that the best public health impact is when entire communities understand shared stake and work together. We should allow those who are experts to guide the way, as we learn from each other. 

➡️ In this vein, remember that science is collaborative and one single person does not and should not have all the answers! Write joint statements with partners, have multiple spokespeople or even multiple people doing interviews. Give credit where credit is due (including interns and staff), and allow for the public to see the wide breadth of diverse people that are working together for their community. 

#5. Be inclusive and expansive in your view of who holds authoritative knowledge and who is on our team. Meet with a broad and diverse set of community members and leaders, including Black, Indigenous, and people of color, disabled folks, houseless folks, people inside prison (where disease spreads rapidly), community organizers, and more. Work with them as consultants and teammates to executive cultural strategy, and pay them if you can: in what languages, where, how and when are the best ways for their communities to receive messages, no matter how unorthodox? Who is trusted in the community – like church leaders or neighborhood organizers – to deliver messages? In what type of tone? What are the issues and problems that their communities might face or that may be exacerbated that we should work side by side with these communities to develop communications and plans around?

➡️Assign multiple people to keep up with news cycles and news sources, including “nontraditional” sources like social media, neighborhood groups or apps like Nextdoor. Ask communities where their people are communicating. This allows us to know how people are feeling and what issues to address. 

#6. Know what you know..and what you don’t. Pause before answering to gather your thoughts. In the face of a question you can’t or don’t want to answer, re-state your talking points. Don’t overstate, overpromise, sugarcoat, or undersell. For things you don’t know, state what steps our team is taking to figure them out.

 #7. Stick to the facts. But don’t get too data heavy. While we can and should have as much data as possible publicly available, we can boil things down into more digestible materials for people at different levels. What are the things that our main audience needs to know, and what would be too much information?

#8. Center health literacy. Make sure that your communication is simple to understand and actionable, and employ health literacy tests in order to measure literacy level and actionability. Knowing our audience allows us to aim for certain literacy levels.

➡️Don’t forget the kids or any other generation! We should be creating materials that explain what’s going on to people of all ages and experiences. 

#9. Cultivate relationships with media and journalists. Most of us have the same goals in mind: to provide as much information as possible for the betterment of our communities. You’re not going to like everyone, and that’s okay. But creating antagonistic relationships with the media—let alone acting negatively in the public spotlight and on the internet—only makes it harder for us to spread critical public health information. 

#10. Create accessible materials. If something is designed, work with graphic designers to create a high contrast version for people who are colorblind. Translate your materials into as many languages as possible. Create different ways for people to consume the content, including video, one pagers, and more. Invest in ASL interpreters for every event and reading that you put out. Emails should be translated into ASL, and there should be live caption writers and ASL interpreters at every speaking event that you do. 

 #11. Allow for consistent review, critical reflection, and flexibility. We should be watching how our communications are being received, if they are being followed, who is being left out, and more. Our practices should be constantly shifting to improve results. 

 #12. End with re-stating your shared values, and the future we are working towards. It’s important for people to be reminded again that we all have a shared stake, and a shared goal. We will get out of this crisis, and it will be because we worked as a team to care for every single one of us.