Aug 3 2012

Telling the Stories of Public Health

The power of storytelling was the focus of a well-attended session at the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) Annual Meeting in Los Angeles last week. The session, led by members of NACCHO’s government affairs staff and two health department directors, focused on communicating the importance of local health departments to policy-makers and the public.

Laura Hanen, MPP, head of government and public affairs at NACCHO, started off the session by reminding the attendees, most of them staff at health departments, that getting attention is especially important now when funding is declining. “There is a perception that health reform will fix everything and there won’t be as much need to pump funding into public health,” Hanen said. For example, Hanen pointed out, if the Prevention and Public Health Fund is eliminated, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would have thirteen percent of its budget walk out the door.”

Choose “credible messengers,” Hanen advised, including state and local elected representatives, public health officials and staff and third party validators. And Hanen reminded attendees of the session to “create those relationships before you need them.”

Hanen ticked off key points in story telling including:

  • Telling stories with impact
  • Capturing messages that resonate
  • Conveying a complete idea
  • Identifying the cause of a problem
  • Keeping messages short and easy to understand
  • Indicating a course of action
  • Making messages dynamic, memorable and local

On when to use a story, Hanen said “use stories to illustrate what you seek to achieve.” Stories, she said, substantiate continued investment and demonstrate public health’s ability to adapt to challenges, and hardship stories reinforce when you are forced to do less with less.

Bruce Dart, a former NACCHO president and director of the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department in Nebraska, told the story of going on television with a key mayor in his district when the H1N1 vaccine was first introduced, but in short supply. The mayor made it clear that the supplies on hand were reserved for people most at risk, and that the mayor himself would not be getting the vaccine until greater stocks of the vaccine were available. “That was extremely powerful and effective and the uproar diminished exponentially,” said Dart.  “People who had been harassing us for the shot, stopped, and immunizations clinics, then reserved for those at highest risk, went extremely well from that point on.”

Carol Moehrle, another former NACCHO president and district director of North Central District Health Department in Idaho, ended the session talking about using members of the local college football team–local heroes–to talk to third and sixth graders about making best use of their recess time to get physical exercise. The team traveled to schools with school nurses, who told the kids to use recess “to run and jump, and how much they had benefitted from their own exercise as kids.” It was local and the message stuck, said Moehrle. “It was a great way to tell a public health story.”

Other suggestions—stories don’t always have to end with an ask, said Hanen. Public health officials should also be seen as a resource.

Finally, said Hanen, when thinking through your stories, “be ready with your elevator speech.”  Hanen said she knows of health department officials who came to Washington, and actually bumped into their senator in the elevator.

>>Weigh In:  Visit this post to share a public health story that made an impact on a stakeholder in your community. Just add your story to the comments section.
>>Read the stories of other health departments across the country in 
NewPublicHealth coverage of the NACCHO conference.

Tags: Public and Community Health