More than any other health crisis of our time, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the realities of health inequity in the United States and the continuing efforts to meet the needs of the people who need the most help. Tailoring health communications is about much more than overcoming stereotypes to ensure your message is received and heard. Community-led connections with diverse audiences, especially those who are traditionally underserved and hard to reach, are an essential part of a long-term strategy to realize health equity, with measurable short-term gains.
The Pitfalls of Mainstream Marketing
Populations can and do become underserved or hard- to- reach because there is no one-size-fits-all method, yet typically systems and solutions—and communications—are developed to reach the majority, the groups that are considered the mainstream audience. When developing public health campaigns, it’s important to research how your communities of focus access public health and how they receive and consume health information. Collaborating with community organizations benefits in promoting policies, improving community conditions, and removing systemic and structural barriers such as poverty, racism, gender discrimination, ableism, and other forms of oppression.
Marginalization—a situation in which systems and/or solutions exclude some individuals, inadvertently or deliberately—can occur, even among groups that are the primary focus of a health campaign. For example, people ages 65 and older were the initial focus of the COVID-19 awareness and vaccine campaigns, but that audience was challenged with a solution that was heavily dependent on online or app registration and scheduling for vaccines. Many older adults did not have the technical literacy, a computer, or a smart phone to schedule vaccines online, which contributed to a disparity in vaccine access.
Disparities such as technical literacy or language are fairly common, but many times the differences are not so obvious. Prioritizing the needs of diverse communities (not working around them) requires an understanding of the lived experiences across a broad spectrum of identity types—gender orientation, race, ethnicity, disability type, and much more.
Partnerships: The Doorway to Health Equity
Having a diverse team of experienced researchers and multicultural outreach experts is key to creating meaningful collaborations with intended audiences. To gain a foothold on the intended audience, look for community-based organizations that are already trusted partners to your groups of interest and that have a proven record of program execution.
The most effective partnerships are ones in which there is collaboration in a bidirectional relationship, aligning your efforts with those of your partners. The strength of their relationships and insider knowledge can go a long way toward furthering health equity in your communications and outreach. Keep in mind that these organizations have spent years building trust within their communities, and they should be compensated for the value and resources they bring. Work with your client to budget for funding to execute specific activities with your partner. In return, you can require reporting on activities in a timely manner.
In vetting your partnerships, it’s essential that your mission and values align and that you evaluate what you bring to the relationship, too.
- Start with clear expectations from both your client and partner. This is easier said than done, but with a mutual understanding of what’s valuable to the client, partner, and community of focus and with an agreement on a timeline, you can develop a pathway to success. Watch out for roadblocks, such as challenges with working together in the past.
- Approach the relationship by being a partner to your partners. Support your partner’s strengths and resilience in the community by offering health communication expertise and strategies, so they can focus on prioritizing your campaign and more readily share their connections, insider knowledge, efficiencies, and synergies within the community. For the COVID-19 Public Education Campaign We Can Do This campaign, Fors Marsh Group (FMG) has developed a storehouse of publicly available outreach resources in multiple languages on the U.S. Health and Human Resources (HHS) website.
- Remember that not every partnership is created equal. Some will want complete oversight of your work in the community, whereas others will welcome your input. Adjust accordingly for the best outcomes.
Partnerships can help open doors and earn your trust in the community by proxy, get your public health message into the hands of those who most need it, and move the needle toward a society in which everyone has the same opportunities to live a healthy life.
FMG has more than 20 years of experience in applying data-driven strategies and evidence-based research to some of our nation’s biggest health concerns. We have the relationships to quickly assemble teams with diverse, multicultural expertise in social marketing, communications, partnerships, behavior change, technology, and program management.