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Achieving Group Results through Communications

If communications efforts build support for the agenda of the partnership or coalition, it should also be acknowledged that communicating on behalf of a group also presents special challenges. In general, the external communications of local public health partnerships and coalitions may appropriately resemble a local health department's own communications program, with one important distinction. Communications success in a partnership or coalition generally requires:
  • More extensive planning
  • Careful negotiations
  • Frequent conversation to make sure that all members know the group's message points, how to deliver them, and how to defend them from opposition

Consider these examples of special challenges posed by partnerships and coalitions, and how to meet them:


Disagreements over communications can create an impasse in planning

Due to increases in West Nile Virus and other mosquito-borne diseases, a partnership of several groups has been formed to tackle the problem that mosquitoes are breeding in standing water in gutters, ponds, used-tire wells, crevasses, and large holes on properties. Potential funding is very limited. Part of the coalition wants to promote funding for mosquito eradication, while others are more interested in education. A series of planning meetings fails to produce a consensus. To keep the effort alive, the communications coordinator proposes taking three small steps while the broader discussion continues: educational radio interviews; an "evergreen" (usable by news outlets at any time) tip sheet about the mosquito eradication program and what it could accomplish with greater resources; and an addition to the LHD website noting the importance of both eradication and education. Success and comfort with these measures builds confidence and momentum within the group.

Without adequate negotiations, events can be divisive

A local Healthy Babies Coalition promotes prenatal care to prevent low birth weight, HIV/AIDS in newborns, and family violence and to increase breast-feeding. Breast-feeding educators in the organization want to hold a public event where breast-feeding would occur in public, but other coalition members say that would offend most citizens. As a compromise, the communications coordinator proposes a "healthy babies parade"—where any feeding of babies would occur privately, away from the main activity, while carefully selected photos of breast-feeding would decorate a backdrop to the photogenic parade and presentations.

Resistance to publicity can backfire, revealing the need for repeated conversations

Because incidences of hepatitis A, B, and C are all increasing, the LHD's chief medical officer forms a group to improve hepatitis awareness, prevention, and treatment. Other personnel—in disease control, public education, and sexually transmitted infection units—have some concerns about focusing on this single constellation of diseases, because that could confuse consumers and health professionals. So the new group agrees to maintain a low profile. But then, a reporter gets wind of the increase in hepatitis and contacts heads of all these units, who proceed to give conflicting information and advice. In a subsequent meeting, the group agrees—too late to prevent the damage caused by the uncoordinated statements—to prepare and circulate internally a list of "key messages," and the communications director agrees to regularly remind all units about its contents.

Creating a Group Identity

The "resistance-to-publicity" example above might raise the possibility of directing all media inquiries to a single spokesperson. But, that approach is generally counter-productive to the purposes of a local health coalition for the following reasons:
  • Public health coalitions generally seek attention, and channeling all inquiries to a single source will tend to reduce coverage
  • A single-spokesperson policy can breed resentment among other members, who are likely to find ways around it, anyway
  • A single-spokesperson policy will deflect other members from participating in message development and uniting behind the messages

Coalitions can find it especially difficult to agree on messages, as each member organization has its own communications style, policy priorities, and hot-button issues. A "strategic message development team" composed of key members, led by a neutral facilitator generally knowledgeable about messaging, can help the coalition reach agreement. Team members should include a mix of senior and mid-level personnel, to help assure that messages will sound fresh, appeal to a cross-section of the public, and represent the views of workers in the trenches of public health.

Tip: Develop a Simple Letterhead and Style Sheet for the Coalition

Visibly branded correspondence, press releases, and other announcements helps the target audience understand the material comes from the entire group.

More information and suggestions for creating a strong and nimble presence for a local health department, partnership, or coalition can be found in the Communications Planning section.