Restoring Sanity in Health Communications


Yesterday television commentators, satirists, comedians, provocateurs Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert hosted the Rally to Restore Sanity on the Washington Mall. The event was described as a counter to what has been seen as a rising tide of hostility and incivility in the media.

We’re looking for the people who think shouting is annoying, counterproductive, and terrible for your throat; who feel that the loudest voices shouldn’t be the only ones that get heard; and who believe that the only time it’s appropriate to draw a Hitler mustache on someone is when that person is actually Hitler. Or Charlie Chaplin in certain roles.

The event, which I didn’t attend or see, has received a lot of news coverage that has, perhaps ironically and predictable, been all over the map choosing to focus on the “insane crowd” , the “lighthearted rally“, or the “comedic call for calm” (video).

But as the media grasps for their sound bites, the coverage ironically provides a perfect example of one of the central things  the Rally was intended to highlight: oversimplification and amplification of extreme perspectives that mislead and mis-represent reality.

If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

These words from Jon Stewart point to the problem of lack of differentiation in signal strength when we communicate messages.

The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything we eventually get sicker.

When everything is important, nothing is important.

That is part of restoring sanity in any communication platform. Certainly when we consider innovation in health and social services. How often are recommendations for action large, unwieldy and full of detail? Everything is important and everything is critical. Attend a major public health conference and you’ll come away feeling that there are dozens of “top” priority items to tackle. This is not to suggest that there is lots of work to be done in lots of areas, but its easy to see why we’re having a hard time motivating policy makers, the public, and generalist health practitioners to action when they get these kinds of messages.

What results is that we wind up with gimmicks like football players wearing pink shoes to raise awareness for breast cancer. That might be a good idea, but it is also a costly one. Breast cancer is one of many areas that spends a lot of money to bring in a lot of money. Anecdotally, I’ve told by those in the know that many health charities in Canada send upwards of 80% of their charitable intake to the companies running the campaigns for the reason that they can’t run it themselves.

I agree that good campaigns require sophisticated talent (which requires investment), but as a donor I find the story behind these statistics reprehensible. But the bottom line in this case is around marketing and getting that message louder and bigger. As more distractions come in, more content is generated and people’s attentional resources get ever more taxed, being louder and bolder is seen as the viable strategy for getting messages — political or health — out.

But there are other ways.

Developing relationships, true relationships, with your intended audience might be a better way. It is not a simple* way like most of the loud-speaker marketing uses, rather it is a complex, more nuanced way of getting the word out. It’s also the way that most of us learn and develop trust networks. The difference is that these relationships and networks are far more robust and adaptive to complex conditions than the straightforward thrust of traditional simple marketing strategies. They will last much longer than the campaigns used to generate the messages in the first place.

When resources are tight and the number of people competing for those resources is greater than ever, a communication strategy that is cost-effective over the long-term, robust, adaptive and brings people and ideas closer together is a good bet. Time to restore not only sanity, but relationships in our work.

* simple does not equal easy or effortless.

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