Engagement and Deliverance at the CDC, Part 1

I can’t attend humongous conferences like the American Public Health Association monstrosity; although there are an incredible number of sessions, only a small percentage actually apply directly to my own interests. Last week at the CDC’s 2nd National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media, I had the opposite problem. So many sessions were scheduled, and nearly every one was spot-on as to the topics I want to learn about, that it was hard to choose which ones to attend. (Disclosure: I was on the conference planning committee, but can’t really claim credit for how the actual end product turned out. And I unfortunately did not try hard enough to change the theme — “Engage and Deliver” — which Adam Ant sang over and over in my head throughout the conference.)

I had to miss the last day of the conference, but still filled an entire notepad with my notes from each session. Aside from the plenary sessions, the panels were comprised primarily of research-based presentations. Despite some inevitably dry deliveries, I’m glad our field has evolved to the point where we have so much research to share. Here are some of the key points I thought were worth highlighting:


  • James Surowiecki, author of The Wisdom of Crowds, talked about how, under the right conditions, a group’s decisions can be smarter than those of the smartest person in the group. He used examples like Google’s pagerank algorithm, racetrack betting and Best Buy’s yearly gift card sales. His point is that if you can devise a way to aggregate individual predictions simultaneously, and to do this within a diverse group of people with different perspectives and ways of approaching problems, the random errors will cancel each other out and you will end up with the closest approximation to the correct answer.

    Key lessons: 1) When assembling a team to solve a problem, bring in people with many different viewpoints and skills. 2) Encourage disagreement. 3) Limit the amount of back-and-forth dithering, which leads to worse decisionmaking.

New Frontiers in Message Design Theory

  • Karen King, University of Georgia – If you have multiple messages to convey within a campaign, you can bundle up to four together without losing recall. It does not make a difference whether you specify the category that unifies the messages. I found this interesting as I have always thought to be most effective you should limit the number of messages you try to cram into a single communication piece. They were testing this with brochures, but I think other media would have a different maximum number.
  • Michael Rovito, Temple University – For the issue of testicular cancer, he used perceptual mapping to identify four different types of “control identities” related to locus of control (whether people believed control was external or internal) and constructs of whether control is realistic or unrealistic. The four types were: 1) The Fates – unrealistic external; 2) The Herd – realistic external; 3) The Optimals – realistic internal; and 4) The Manipulators – unrealistic internal. Clearly, different types of people need different kinds of messages tailored to their beliefs.
  • Bill Smith, Academy for Educational Development – Bill described a research/decision making technique called “deliberative polling,” which was created by James Fishkin and offers another way to think about involving citizens in policy discussions when there is no clear-cut right answer. A randomly selected sample of 800-1500 people, who are first polled by phone, are brought together over two days. During this time they read background documents on the issue, have experts explaining the different options, ask questions of the experts, and break into small groups to discuss and debate what they’ve learned. This technique can be a good way of involving the public in evaluating competing alternatives and prioritizing public policy issues.

Applying Emerging Theories to Engage the Public

  • Sergey Sotnikov, CDC – By mapping out the relationships between either organizations or people within an organization, you can use network analysis to visualize the key points within the network. You can look at who is most connected overall, who are the go-betweens on specific topics, and who is more isolated. This can help you figure out the best way to spread information within a network.
  • Jennifer Heilbronner, Metropolitan Group – Jennifer spoke about building public will, and how this is a different process from social marketing. She defined it as “a communication approach that builds public support for long-term social change by integrating grassroots outreach methods with traditional mass media tools and connecting an issue to the existing, closely held values of individuals and groups.” While I think she was contrasting this process to the too common mass media-focused, short-term campaign blast many people think is social marketing, her description of public will building is much closer to the more comprehensive marketing mix-driven social marketing process to which many of us in the field adhere. You can download her group’s Public Will Framework to learn more about their process.
  • Constanze Rossmann, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat-Munchen – While I thought it was overkill to start off with a definition of “health flyer” and I loved her pronunciation of the word “anxiety” as “ANKshity” (Yes! It does look like it should be pronounced that way.), this presentation looked at two very important different elements of how we present information. First, do exemplars — a case study of one person — affect risk perceptions, attitudes and behaviors more than abstract statistics and generalizations about the population? In her testing of a brochure about obesity, the answer was yes — but only among people who are already involved with the issue (e.g., worried about their weight, dieting, etc.). Second, what is the effect of fear appeals in graphic images? She tested three different images related to obesity, each of which was either low, moderate or high fear inducing. Interestingly, she found that when it came to building knowledge, the low and high images were more effective. To affect risk perception, attitudes and behaviors, the moderately fear inducing image was more effective. I wonder why that difference – do different types of people react to the images in different ways?

That was Day 1 – I’ll sum up the second day in a subsequent post.

In the meantime, you can learn more by checking out the Ning group for the conference that was started by Dana Sheets as a place to share notes. If you’re on Facebook, look at the Health Communication, Marketing and Media group that is a central place to exchange ideas related to the conference. Read Craig Lefebvre’s summary of a discussion that took place at the conference about the development of a professional network. And if you went to the conference and want to put in your two cents about what you thought, someone at the CDC Chatter message board wants to know if it was “as extravagant and pointless as we all expected it to be.” Um, no, Senator Coburn. An embarrassment of riches, perhaps, but extravagant and pointless, not in any way.

UPDATE: Read Part 2 here

Submit a Comment