Practicing Cultural Humility in Health Communications
As health communicators, who we reach and how we reach them is one of the most important components to the success of any campaign. We can develop the most compelling message, wrapped in the most unique creative and have it fall on deaf ears because it was not delivered in a culturally relevant package.
Cultural humility means that you recognize the diversity within your target audience and work to create communications which honor that diversity by providing messages that can be received in a meaningful way. It is not the assumption that you know what’s best for a culture, but rather an effort to partner with members of the culture to create the appropriate messaging.
As a public health practitioner, one of the biggest takeaways from my social marketing studies was “meet your audience where they are.” It seems obvious, yet often the people who could really benefit from the messages we want to deliver are left out. If African-American men are the group most affected by a specific type of cancer, then how can we effectively communicate to them that there is a specific treatment option available? If Hispanic women are more likely to suffer from diabetes, then how do we advocate for them? Often, many well-meaning campaigns use content and channels that aren’t relevant to the audience they’re intended to reach. This might mean failing to depict people who represent the target audience or using a social media channel that isn’t popular with the target audience. As professional communicators, we must accept that tactics compelling to us may not be meaningful to others.
One of the most compelling public health campaigns that I have seen was called The Immunity Charm. Historically, Afghanistan was plagued with extremely high infant mortality rates and low vaccination completion rates. There were no immunization records, high rates of illiteracy and biases against vaccines that had to be overcome. Public health officials worked with a communications agency to adapt a traditional bracelet worn by infants as a kind of vaccination tracker. They expanded on the traditional beads with color-coded beads to track vaccine history. The bracelets became a walking vaccination record and conversation starter amongst mothers of infants. With this campaign, health officials were able to reach the people who would benefit most with a message they were able to relate to and understand.
In what other ways can we as health communicators reach the people who need our messages most here in the U.S.? Perhaps coordinating with barbershops and churches to reach African-American men with materials about cancer screening and treatment options. Maybe we can reach out to neighborhood Hispanic markets and shopping plazas to reach busy Hispanic women with information about diabetes and how to prevent it. Meet them where they are with messages that will resonate with them, rather than using influencers who don’t look like them and to whom they don’t relate.
Cultural humility in communications require us to step outside of our boxes. It requires us to target audiences that may be smaller than what we are used to, but to no less benefit. We are, after all, working to reach those who truly need to hear our messages.
Let’s challenge each other to ensure our campaigns are designed to reach specific populations that may not relate to our mainstream efforts—for the betterment of everyone’s health.