Sometimes bad things happen to good people. And sometimes bad things happen to good causes. One day you're celebrating a new campaign and the next you're pulling an ad after a segment on the Daily Show calls attention to the inherent (or sometimes unanticipated) risk associated with the messaging strategy.
Take last week for example. Suddenly everyone seemed to be as enthusiastic about alcohol messaging as we are. A recently released infographic intended to raise awareness of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders had struck a chord - but, unfortunately as it turned out, not in a good way. Reactions like shaming, shady, scare tactics, condescending, and offensive certainly would have been red flags during pretesting and are even moreso tough to swallow post release. Following the backlash, the CDC indicated in a New York Times interview that the message "wasn't as clear as we had hoped," and the infographic in its original form is not currently posted on the website.
This is a question that's frequently raised as new outreach materials, advertising, and messaging come under scrutiny. When questions are raised about whether or not travel guidance related to Zika virus outbreaks is raising the appropriate level of concern, or if an anthropomorphic sloth is motivating teen marijuana use behaviors in the intended or unintended direction, people are left wondering: What happened with the messaging?
In the world of public health communication, and in particular government-sponsored communication, communicators are tasked with accurately leveraging scientific evidence in an engaging and motivational manner - not an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination. The push and pull between scientific/evidence-based and creative/attention-grabbing is evident in much of the work we do.
We often talk about preventing the preventable in public health, and there are some lessons learned there for message development as well. How can good causes prevent, or at least mitigate, preventable messaging setbacks? We've found that research is an important tool in both identifying (a) what's likely to be effective in moving the needle on key outcomes like knowledge, attitudes and behaviors and (b) what, if anything, are the potential unintended consequences.
When a communication strategy has potential to generate negative reactions by design - maybe it's different; maybe it's a little edgy - a nuanced approach to testing is necessary because you often have a subset of people who feel, sometimes strongly, that light-hearted or less "traditional" communication approaches aren't "serious enough" for topics like health concerns and/or messages sponsored by the government.
Much like we work to develop and evaluate messages designed to help the public make informed decisions about the risks they face each day, we frequently find ourselves working with clients to identify their personal levels of acceptable risk when it comes to messaging strategies intended to "break through" the clutter. A few best practices we've found essential:
Effective communication and behavior change is no easy task, and the negative press associated with perceived missteps serves as a reminder of why we're passionate about what we do. Research first and research often - sometimes informing refinements (or rarely complete overhauls) but other times providing evidence that the benefits outweigh the risks.
So chin up, communicators - you could be trying to explain to your boss what kids these days thought you meant by a "Netflix and Chill" night at the ballpark. Wait, what?