A hub for training better public health communicators

Amanda Yarnell in classroom
Amanda Yarnell, new senior director of the Center for Health Communication, teaching a class

Revamped Center for Health Communication develops programs to help students and researchers communicate more effectively

November 30, 2022 – Amid ongoing public health challenges—the pandemic, the climate crisis, pervasive health inequities, to name a few—communicating health information effectively is more important than ever, according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Amanda Yarnell.

Yarnell, a longtime science journalist and newsroom leader who was hired as the senior director of the School’s Center for Health Communication (CHC) in March 2022, is refocusing the center on defining, teaching, and sharing best practices for communicating health information in a world that’s increasingly skeptical and fragmented.

“The past few years have made it painfully clear that public health is not optimally equipping its leaders to communicate clearly and authentically in today’s media environment,” said Yarnell. “The new CHC hopes to change that.”

Former CHC Director Jay Winsten, who founded the Center in 1985, was known for initiating influential public health efforts such as the Designated Driver Campaign, which mobilized major Hollywood studios and television networks to help promote the “designated driver” concept to decrease alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Now, the CHC is broadening its focus to helping public health leaders everywhere get better at sharing health information.

“The COVID pandemic has reinforced what we all knew to be true—strong communication skills are absolutely vital for public health leaders at every stage of their careers,” said Harvard Chan School Dean Michelle Williams. “That’s why we relaunched the Center for Health Communication to focus on an educational mission. Under Amanda’s leadership, the CHC is developing a wide variety of programs and resources to equip our students, faculty, and researchers to credibly and effectively connect with the public. I’m energized by her vision and I’m confident CHC will emerge as a preeminent hub for defining, teaching, and sharing best practices in health communication.”

Communications training

Yarnell is working on several fronts. One of those is boosting communications training for students through both classes and workshops, so that they are better equipped to influence policy debates, counter misinformation, and increase the public’s trust in health expertise.

This fall, Harvard Chan School offered a noncredit course called “Engaging with the Press: A Practical Look at Effective Public Health Communications,” taught by veteran journalist Richard Tofel, former president of ProPublica and a distinguished visiting fellow at Harvard Chan. And Yarnell has begun to inject communication skill building and practice into existing Harvard Chan classes. For example, she created a new climate communication module for the MPH core that will debut in December.

This fall, CHC hosted a series of student workshops on health communication in a changing world, featuring outside experts. Topics included countering health misinformation and using narrative to highlight disparities and catalyze change. An upcoming workshop scheduled for February 8 is titled “TikTok, Gen-Z influencers, and the child tax credit: Lessons for public health.”

CHC also plans to offer training for members of the broader Harvard Chan community. In January it will host a data visualization workshop for faculty and senior research staff. And beginning in 2023, there will be media training on demand for anyone at the School.

Resource library

Yarnell is working to build a rich array of online resources on how to communicate about public health topics. The library—which is available to all at Harvard Chan School as well as to the general public, via the CHC website—includes things such as video case studies from climate creators and tip sheets based on content from student workshops.

Another CHC resource is a new monthly newsletter, Call to Action, that provides a monthly dose of research and best practices in health and science communication. Each issue includes practical takeaways from standout public health campaigns and peer-reviewed communications research, plus communication tools and resources public health professionals can apply to their work right now.

Call to Action also highlights communication “wins” from the Harvard Chan community. One of those wins was an animation about the menstrual cycle for children and caregivers, created by Tatheer Adnan and Shruthi Mahalingaiah, that was displayed in Boston’s Museum of Science during the summer of 2022.

“To influence people and policy, public health leaders must put in the work to continually sharpen their communication skills,” Yarnell said. “Call to Action delivers the communication research and best practices they need, right to their inbox. We hope that it, and the many other resources the CHC is building, will serve not just the Harvard Chan community but also the field of public health.”

Karen Feldscher

Photo: Kent Dayton