The dangers of risky behaviors – poor eating habits, lack of exercise, and smoking – and their potential effects on health are well known to many. We know many steps that can be taken to help reduce these behaviors and other risk factors, and to help promote healthy behaviors. The NICHD Back to Sleep campaign is an example of successfully conveying a health promotion message to the public. Research has shown that after this campaign was undertaken, the prevalence of infants placed in theprone sleep position declined by 66 percent between 1992 and 1996. Although causality cannot be proved, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome rates declined approximately38 percent during this period . Yet clinically based science is not always communicated in a meaningful way that engages individuals, communities, States and Federal agencies.
Health communications and health messaging can contribute to taking what we know from science and clinical experience to support what is done at the personal, community, State, and National levels to prevent illness and disability.
The challenge is to make health promotion and disease prevention messages as effective as possible. A variety of factors have been identified that may limit the effectiveness of messages:
- Failure to deliver the right messages to the right segments of the audience at the right times.
- Reluctance to combine service programs with public affairs/communications initiatives; neither alone may be sufficient to change behavior.
- A “health problem at a time” approach creates multiple messages that can compete with each other for the same audiences and generate confusing “noise.”
- Insufficient collaboration and coordination can limit the reach of prevention efforts.
- The absence of a unified theme across prevention communication and programs that can create a strategic framework for partnerships.
When it comes to communicating prevention messages or undertaking prevention-oriented programs at the community level, there are several key guidelines:
- Whether addressing diabetes or lung cancer, heart disease or drug addiction, the underlying message is about taking action to reduce the factors that might lead to long-term illnesses and to encourage the adoption of behaviors, attitudes and lifestyles that decrease the risks.
- The readiness to receive and act on a prevention message varies. People have different levels of awareness and knowledge about their health, and these may vary with age, gender, geographic location, education, and race/ethnicity. Readiness, along with many other factors, must be assessed, target audience by target audience, so that messages will be appropriate for them.
- Prevention messaging should not be an isolated incident or a one-time effort intended to reach all Americans. It is better to work with the intended audience segments to identify the most appropriate messages that will motivate action.
- Over time, many prevention messages must change to reflect a changing society. When advertising has helped create a demand for a product, it shifts its orientation to selling that product. To keep the product fresh in the eyes of the consumer, the sales messages change over time – sometimes targeting different audiences, sometimes repositioning the product in the market. The same is true for prevention messaging. Static messages often become unheard messages over time; they must remain current as levels of awareness and readiness for behavior change increase.
- It is more effective to communicate messages through multiple channels. No one channel works for every audience or all members of a particular audience.
- Effective prevention messaging begins with assessments of the intended audiences for the prevention activity and ends with evaluation of successful efforts and activities.
- Coordination and collaboration can help to reduce the “noise” of competing prevention messages and to leverage resources. Too much information, too many requests for behavior change in different arenas, absent an underlying theme, can lead to indecision about what to do in any one area or, worse, can result in a “turn off.”
- Prevention messages should be integrated with prevention programs.
- The effectiveness of messages promoting prevention needs to be evaluated to inform new directions. Is the message reaching the target audiences? Are they learning from and using the message?