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Section 1. Developing a Plan for Getting Community Health and Development Issues on the Local Agenda

Tool 1: Communication Basics for Advancing Your Issue

In any plan to get a community health or development issue on the local agenda, effective communication is a must. We recap here some basic principles.

1. Learn and follow the rules of communication. The material in the box below is taken from Promoting Awareness and Interest Through Communication, which paints a complete picture of a communication campaign.

Communication is a two-way street. You have to be sure that what your audience understands is the message that you meant to send. There are several issues that can provide difficulties here.

  • Language. Is the message in a language that people can understand? Effective communication may require putting your message in a language other than English if that's the language of the target community, or it may mean making sure that your message is in clear, simple English.
  • Non-verbal communication. Your body language, tone and pitch of voice, and clothing all send powerful messages of their own about whom you intend to reach. If you're using images - in photographs, music, video, or film - will your audience immediately recognize and identify with them?
  • Culture. Different cultures communicate in different ways, so you have to understand the culture of your target audience to communicate effectively. Looking toward and away from people have different meanings in different cultures, for instance. It's important to be culturally sensitive in order both to be understood and not to offend.

Communication has to be accessible. No matter how creative and potentially effective your message is, it can't do much good if your audience isn't exposed to it. You have to put it where they can't miss it.
Communication has to be noticeable. Even after the message is placed in the right channels, it has to have some characteristics that will help it to break through the barrage of messages that bombards everyone every day. People not only have to be exposed to it, but they have to pay attention to it for it to have any effect.

2. Use the four elements of effective messages:

Channels. You have to put your message where people will see or hear it. That means using the places, media outlets, businesses, agencies, reading matter, and people that members of the community frequent or pay attention to. In a Hispanic community, for instance, you may want to place your message on the Spanish-language radio station, in the monthly neighborhood Spanish-language newsletter, in Hispanic markets, in churches, in Hispanic clubs and institutions, etc.
Design. Your message, whether it's meant to be seen, heard, or delivered in person, should be designed to catch the attention of the audience, to be appropriate to the topic, to tell them exactly what you want them to know, and to stay with them afterward. That may mean bright colors or photographs on a poster, an unusual or arresting image, a radio message accompanied by catchy music, humor, a clever phrase...any or all of these might serve to make your message memorable.

Beware being too clever. Some TV ads - those shown during the Olympic Games seem particularly susceptible - are clever, fun to watch, moving, memorable...and don't really tell you what they're ads for. You may remember the ad for years, and have no idea what product or service it was trying to convince you to use.

Spokespersons. If you're using radio or TV ads, or if you're asking people in the community to make public statements or presentations about your issue, make sure that the people speaking for the issue are respected by the intended audience and believable in relation to the issue itself. The fire chief may be a great guy, but that doesn't make him an authority on teen pregnancy unless he's had - and is willing to talk about - a firsthand experience with it. A recovering addict may have more credibility on drug issues than a business leader in a suit.
Familiar themes and values. Try to couch your message in terms that people are familiar with, especially if the issue you're discussing is unfamiliar to them. Starting a message about teen violence with a statement of a value that most parents would claim ("We all want our kids to grow up safe and healthy.") is a way to get people 's attention and make them sympathetic to what follows. Using a universally recognized setting ("School is for learning...") is another way to accomplish the same goals.

3. Be aware of, and plan to counter, the four most common barriers to an effective communication campaign:

  • Ignorance. People have never heard of, or know nothing about, the issue, and therefore can't really respond to your message.
  • Selective inattention. People are bombarded with so many messages - signs, radio and TV ads, posters, etc. - that they screen out any that aren't of immediate interest to them, or that don't grab them in some other way.
  • Selective inexposure. People simply avoid the channels or messages that they see as "not for them" or disturbing. People who dislike classical music probably don't listen to public radio, for instance. People upset by the sight of blood don't go out of their way to witness surgical procedures, or even to read the New England Journal of Medicine.
  • Cultural, religious, or moral reservations. If your message conflicts with people's world view, you'll have a difficult time convincing them of its importance. Many people object to sex education on religious or moral grounds, for instance, even though research has shown again and again that such education reduces, rather than encourages, pregnancy and sexual activity among teens.