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Section 2. Communicating Information about Community Health and Development Issues

Learn how to communicate community issues to influence public opinion, mobilize support, and generate action.


Your voice is one of the most powerful tools you possess. Regardless of the language you speak, sign, or write, what you communicate to others and the way you express your ideas is a reflection of your work, your dreams, and your self. Clear, persuasive communication is vital to your success. What you say gives community members the knowledge to understand and work toward common goals. Strong communication skills walk people down the path from awareness to support to action. They are one of the first tools you must possess to improve your community.

First, let's define some key terms:

Health is a state of well-being that includes the physical, mental, and social aspects of life. Health is not simply a lack of illness, and is not limited to the individual; the concept of health extends to the community as a whole. Those in the field of community health and development work both to build the resilience and organizational capacities of people and also to address community-level health concerns.

Consequences of community health and development issues can be divided into primary and secondary types. The differences between primary and secondary consequences can be divided according to the impact the issue has. Primary consequences affect people directly. For example, if a teen becomes pregnant, one primary consequence is the outcome of her pregnancy, another her future. Secondary consequences affect people less directly. In the pregnancy example, one secondary consequence could be the impact of the pregnancy on the teens friends, who may all react differently to the situation.

Why is communicating the consequences of health and community development issues important?

To raise community awareness

Often, people are not aware of the extent of community problems. For instance, they might believe that their town water supply is pure, when in reality it contains an unacceptable level of contaminants. Residents cannot gather together to have an impact on an issue unless they understand it. This can actually be more complicated than it seems, for often we received conflicting messages. For example, in the case of smoking, an individual can be told to cut back, try gum or patches, stop smoking for the sake of their children, or just take it outside. All of these messages can quickly become confusing and discouraging for those unsure about the correct path to take, decreasing the likelihood any action will be taken at all. So, it is important for your organization to have a concise message that conveys the problem, shows how it affects people in the community, and describes the best actions to take.

To influence public opinion

Presenting a strong case for your stance on an issue can sway the public closer to your viewpoint. When it becomes obvious that a problem is important, that it is not currently being addressed, and that workable solutions are available, public opinion is likely to swing your way! Some ways to do this are to establish yourself as a community expert, communicate the consequences of the issue you are focused on, and to use the media.

To mobilize support and generate action

Once people have an understanding of the issue and how it affects them, it is much easier to round up support. If a large organization decided to tear down homes adjacent to its headquarters for parking lots, only those homeowners would be aware of the consequences unless an effort was made to educate the community. Once word spread, concerned citizens from neighborhoods all over the area could sign petitions and attend rallies. If communication touches people in a rational and emotional way, volunteers will follow. Thus, an accurate and convincing portrayal of a community health issue can bring the support necessary to enact positive change.

To whom do I want to communicate?

Just about everyone may benefit from hearing your message, but unfortunately few organizations have neither the time nor the resources to reach every member of a community individually. Therefore, it makes sense to concentrate your efforts where they will have the greatest impact, or to use a cliché, to get the most bang for your buck. Some of the groups you might want to consider include:

Those most directly affected by the issue

With any health or community issue, some people are more significantly impacted than others. Teen pregnancy, for example, has a definite at-risk population: sexually active teens. To reach that group, your message should be directed at teens specifically, and tailored to the points they find most important on the topic. It is important to empower this group to solve the problem within their own community. Often, part of the reason why community development messages are not successful is because the people most affected by the problem do not believe they have the power to change their circumstances. A direct, empowering message to this group can do wonders for a community development initiative.

Leaders of institutions

Almost all communities have the same core institutions, including schools, churches, businesses, service organizations, the government, and the media. These institutions hold a great amount of community power. So with very few exceptions, it is a good idea to enlist the support of institutional leaders. Leaders from each of these sectors can help your organization advance its plan for community change, providing volunteers, time resources, and ideas. The basic principle is that institutional leaders have the power to mobilize their constituencies through both formal and informal influence. Any institution that agrees to become involved in your work becomes a tremendous asset. For example, if you are working to reduce substance use in high school, school leaders are a crucial component of your success. By allowing you to come in and educate students or conduct a survey on substance use, they are invaluable to your group's success in communicating to their target audience.

Other community leaders

These people are vital to creating significant change in the community because they are the ones who have the most power to do so. Community leaders can be found leading the Sunday school at the local church, coaching a sports team, leading the neighborhood watch, tending the local business, or taking action on a neighborhood issue. Bringing community leaders on board and convincing them of the importance of your issue increases the chance of support from the groups they represent. It also gives you a foothold with the media, government, churches, businesses, schools, or whatever other institutions the leaders are linked to. It is amazing how rapidly a movement gains momentum at school once the captain of the football team or the student body president gets behind it. Community leaders should be a part of every effort to spread a message through the community.

The community at large

Community problems have wide-spread consequences for the neighborhood experiencing them. Even people who have never directly experienced a problem should be able to understand its' consequences, both for those directly affected and for the community as a whole.

Another advantage of the entire community being aware of a problem is that this mobilizes support from sources that the catalyst organization may not think to contact directly. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) provides a good example. At one point, a chapter of MADD sent a mailing to an entire community that discussed the dangers of driving under the influence and encouraged people to designate a driver if someone in the group was drinking. They also distributed fliers and red ribbons at a professional football game. These were useful activities because they increased awareness to more people in the area about what MADD does, and brought to the forefront the issues of drinking and driving. MADD is now a name recognized by almost everyone -- a testament in part to the power of including the entire community in activist efforts.

How do I go about it?

Obtain information about the target populations

Before launching into a campaign to inform a community, it is crucial to understand how members within it view your issue. Much of the information you want to obtain about your community should be available in previously collected data, such as demographic data, prevalent political views, attitudes about a specific issue, and possible obstacles to your initiative's success. To efficiently obtain pre-existing information and collect your own data, it is important to create a plan for amassing it.

After pre-existing sources have been exhausted, interviewing key informants is an effective way to gain knowledge about the community. If you are more interested in the results from a small group of individuals gathering to discuss the issue, a focus group is the research method of choice.

Customize your message to each target group

After learning about the level of knowledge, demographics, and opinions or the community members you would like to address, you may find that there are different specific categories of people you would like to address, rather than one large group. It is important to customize your message to each category to increase the effectiveness of your message. For example, with teen pregnancy, it is probably important to include teenage boys, teenage girls, parent, teachers, and members of the religious community in any initiative designed to change attitudes and behavior. Each group requires a slightly different message with points aimed specifically at what each target group can do to decrease the incidence of teen pregnancy. Defining the different audiences you want to address, and tailoring your campaign to each group are important steps before delivering your message to the community.

Get the message out

There are lots of ways to communicate information about the consequences of issues, many of which you are aware of already. Some methods we use every day, such of word-of-mouth. This approach is extremely important for getting the message out, specifically because it is so personal and personalized. Often times, a more formal method is also required to get the word out.

In any effort to communicate the consequences of health and development, the media can be a powerful tool, specifically media advocacy. Media advocacy is the use of any form of media to help promote an organization's objectives. Using the media can be helpful for many reasons. Having your opinions printed in the paper or broadcast on radio or television makes you an information source for the issue. It also puts the issue you are focusing on in the forefront of the public's mind, crucial for any widespread effort. Because the media are generally regarded as authoritative, they also have the power to influence opinion on issues, in essence shifting the community debate.

Evaluate your efforts

After you have begun communicating information on your issue to the public, you should evaluate how effective your campaign has been, and how it can improve in the future. By gathering information from influential community members, targets of change, and different groups associated with the effort, you will be able to better inform the public and formulate an improved campaign for the next major phase of your initiative.

In Summary

Communicating information on the consequences of the issues you are working on is vital to the success of your organization. Without a clear message to send, people will not know how to help you or learn what they need to do in order to make their community a safer, better place. You will find the Community Tool Box has devoted several sections to the pieces of the communication puzzle, taking you step by step through the processes you need to effectively get your message out.

Catie Heaven

Online Resources

3 Tips for Telling Stories That Move People to Action, from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, presents research on how to frame stories about social issues and trains advocates to create change based on that research.

Print Resources

Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers.

Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (1993). (You can increase your media coverage).

Dever, G. (1991). Community health analysis. Maryland: Aspen.

Green, L., & Kreuter, M. (1991). Health promotion planning: An educational and environmental approach. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing.

Minkler, M. (1997). Community organizing and community building for health. New

National Education Goals Panel (1994). Guide to getting out your message.

Technical assistance bulletin. Washington, DC: Arthur.