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The Art of Modern Health Communications

Updated: Dec 16, 2019

Words by James Coker

The rise of the internet has placed knowledge at people’s fingertips in a way that is unique to the entirety of human history. Yet, with an explosion of unfiltered information now available, alongside an erosion of trust in traditional news outlets, misinformation has become endemic in many areas. In healthcare this can have particularly devastating consequences. The moment is ripe for the pharmaceutical industry, in collaboration with other healthcare stakeholders, to redress the balance by giving reliable insights that enable the public to manage their health more effectively. But, in the era of fake news, how can conventional approaches be adapted to ensure their messages resonate with the intended audience?

For the scientific community, evidence-based, reasoned arguments are synonymous with research and daily clinical life; however, factual information alone is having an increasingly limited impact. Grabbing public attention in this fast-paced age requires tearing up the rule book and embracing modern marketing techniques.

Tapping into emotions is essential in this environment. “We know that appealing to people’s hearts, not just their brains, is the way to go. I don’t think we have done a good enough job in appealing to people’s hearts”, acknowledges Seema Kumar, VP, Innovation, Global Health, and Policy Communication, Johnson & Johnson.

We know that appealing to people’s hearts, not just their brains, is the way to go.

In advertising, neuroscience has been used to highlight the imperative of connecting with people emotionally. “Anything you find relevant and emotionally engaging will be tagged as relevant and stored in your long-term memory system for later use. Something that emotionally impacts us leaves a memory trace”, explains Jane Leighton, Director, Nielsen Neuro.

Sharing personal stories has the potential to deliver vital health messages, such as the importance of vaccines, in a way that tugs hard at the human heartstrings. “I think the story-telling aspect has been missing here: we’ve been bombarding people with facts, graphs, charts, and evidence, and we need that, but we need to move beyond evidence to story-telling”, says Kumar, speaking at a Cannes Lions panel discussion on countering vaccine hesitancy.

“There are plenty of parents of children who have been affected or have died from vaccine-preventable diseases and it is important to make sure those stories are shared as well”, points out fellow panellist Rebecca Martin, Director, Center for Global Health.

It is notable that stories are an important part of the Digitas Health and Skin Cancer Foundation’s ‘The Big See’ initiative, a campaign that encourages people to check for skin cancer when they notice anything new, unusual, or changing on their skin. In fact, the campaign was inspired by the personal story of Susan Manber, Chief Strategy Officer, Digitas Health, who only discovered she had a rare form of skin cancer after her daughter pointed out something unusual that had appeared on her nose; an intervention which ultimately saved her life. “Our core brief was literally those two simple words that came out of my daughter’s mouth: ‘what’s that?’”, explains Manber. “Time and time again, when we heard stories like mine, when people got checked, it was because someone had said ‘what’s that?’.” As part of the campaign, Susan describes her overall story in an information video, in which she ends with the powerful reminder that “if I ignored it, if I’d had waited and not got it checked, I wouldn’t be here today.” An emotional response to a story such as this can then allow the scientific, factual message to resonate much more powerfully.

Symbolism is another means of obtaining attention, and even an emotional connection to a brand or message. In developing countries, this has been used to encourage parents to ensure their children receive vital medications. In Kabul, Afghanistan, for instance, giving an immunity charm to children during their first visit to a clinic, followed by differently coloured beads on each occasion they received a vaccine, was highly effective. “The way the immunity charm is used in larger communities is that it is a very visible symbol of the love and protection that you have for your child”, highlights Daniel Carucci, Global Medical Director, McCann Health, who co-founded the project. The next step is to translate this approach to the developed world.

Similarly, in The Big See campaign, a mirror is used to symbolise the core message given. “No-one can pass a mirror without looking into it. So, could we take the power of a mirror to say ‘take a fresh look? Check yourself, check your loved ones”, explains Manber.

Something that emotionally impacts us leaves a memory trace

There is growing acknowledgment within pharma that a prevention-based model is the future of the industry. Providing the tools to enable people to better maintain their own health must therefore be a central tenant of pharma’s future strategy, particularly in an age of fake health news. To do so effectively requires complementing the scientific data with techniques that ensure a message will live long and prosper: an emotional and symbolic appeal should be the cornerstones of this approach.

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