Fighting public health myths: Five skills healthcare comms teams need

Fighting public health myths: Five skills healthcare comms teams need


Last month, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) held a conference regarding ‘fake news’ about health, and particularly vaccinations.  Jessica Smith, healthcare consultant at Hanson Search discusses some of the topics covered and the key skills healthcare communication professionals need in order to be part of the fight-back... 

Measles, a disease which was once seemed likely to be relegated to the world’s history books, is making a come-back. Globally, in just the first three months of 2019, more than 110,000 measles cases were reported worldwide, a 300% increase from the same period last year.  While in the developing world, measles outbreaks can at least in part be attributed to a lack of availability of vaccines, in western societies, something else is at play.

Since the late 1990s, public health educators have been fire-fighting against myths that vaccines are dangerous – and in particular cause autism. One tool that has been weaponised to spread anti-vaccine messages in recent years is social media.  

With this informal ‘word-of-mouth’ marketing – especially when coupled with highly emotive ‘first hand accounts’  –  highly effective at shaping public opinion, it is often those who know the least about health who can wield great influence over public behaviour. Meanwhile, medics and public health educators are left lamely clutching their epidemiological studies and wondering how they can possibly compete.

Communication – both how we communicate, the messages shared and who is communicating those messages – is  perhaps the most important frontier in public health – meaning those working in health communications are at the vanguard of the #provaccine fightback. As Emily Thomas, managing director of health and wellbeing at Brands2Life, who chaired the recent PRCA event focussing on “Fake News” in health, put it: "False health information and news can scare or mislead patients unnecessarily and, as comms people, we need to play our part in stemming the tide, staying true to the facts and ensuring legitimate voices are heard."

Part of this, undoubtedly, is using comms to amplify those legitimate voices. Social media, and indeed more traditional media, have just as much potential as a force for good in this context. So what sort of skills do comms professionals need to ensure that it is the right messages that resonate?

Razor-sharp understanding of influencers

The PRCA panel agreed that the public of often more likely to listen to ‘someone like them’, meaning that social media influencers have a great role to play in public health discourse. That doesn’t necessarily mean getting the major players on board either. Micro-influencers can have just as important a role to play in this space.

An understanding of the power of paid-for

One of the most damaging elements of social media is the way in which it enables people to carve out their own echo chambers. As they read and share about a particular topic, they are then shown more about that topic via suggested pages and paid-for advertisements. When it comes to issues like vaccination however, this sort of highly targeted advertising could also be used for good, with opposing messages shown to those who have gone far down the anti-vax rabbit hole.

Excellent media liaison skills

Packaging up complex medical information in a way that journalists and their audiences can understand, facilitating easy access to media friendly expert spokespeople or being able to charm them into publishing the other (i.e. right) side of the story when a health issue has been misrepresented are all essential skills in public health comms.

Public affairs skills

Unsurprisingly, the public affairs function has a great role to play in shaping the right sort of narrative, by, for example putting pressure on legislators to enact regulations to make the spread of medical misinformation more difficult.  Is there an argument, for example, that the UK needs an equivalent of the Cancer Act of 1939, which prohibits the advertisement of cancer treatments to the general public, to try and help control some of the narrative around vaccines?

Being able to spot a story that resonates

Often it is people, not statistics that have the power to create real change. The media coverage surrounding reality TV star Jade Goody’s death from cervical cancer instigated a marked uplift in the number of women attending cervical screening, so much so that it is spoken of as ‘the Jade Goody effect’. Similarly, Angelina Jolie’s openness about her double mastectomy raised awareness of the benefits of preventative surgery for women carrying the BRCA gene. An old fashioned newshound-like ability to understand how a public health message can be made ‘real’ for the public – whether that is by piggybacking on current events, carefully analysing the existing conversation or identifying a knock-out case study – can go a very long way.

Countering damaging public health myths in a way that resonates with the public is always a challenge, but with these key skills, healthcare communicators can be a key part of the fight back.


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Author: Jessica Smith

Jessica is an experienced healthcare communications recruitment consultant with expertise covering mid-level to c-suite opportunities across healthcare PR, healthcare advertising, medical communications, and medical education.

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