245: The Secrets to Effective Communication

In a special edition of the newscast, Glen Nowak, the former Media Relations Chief for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discusses a back-to-basics approach to effective public health communication, during an interview at the 2022...


In a special edition of the newscast, Glen Nowak, the former Media Relations Chief for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, discusses a back-to-basics approach to effective public health communication, during an interview at the 2022 National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media, hosted by the National Public Health Information Coalition and the CDC.

NPHIC Webpage: 2022 National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media

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Transcript

ROBERT JOHNSON:

This is Public Health Review Morning Edition for Friday, August 19th, 2022. I'm Robert Johnson, reporting from Atlanta with another special edition of the newscast brought to you by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

 

We were here this week for the 2022 National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing, and Media. Today, we're talking about the time it takes to do a good job communicating with audiences.

Our guest is Glen Nowak. He was a top public health communicator at the CDC. Now, he's a professor at the University of Georgia.

Tell us what your main message to communicators was during your talk in Atlanta.

GLEN NOWAK:

Well, my main message is that the communications environment that we deal with in public health has gotten much more complex. We do have far fewer resources, and we do need to look to technology as a way to improve our efficiency. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact of communications is hard. It takes time and it takes resources.

JOHNSON:

A lot of people that communicators work for don't agree with you.

NOWAK:

It's true. Many scientists, many doctors, many MDs don't have much time to be able to talk to patients, to talk to parents, to talk to members of the public. But if you want to be successful in communicating in terms of achieving, understanding, getting people to comply with your recommendations, you have to listen. You have to tailor your responses. It's really hard to come up with one-size-fits-all messages that quickly address the concerns and worries of everybody.

JOHNSON:

Is that the biggest challenge facing public health communicators, or are there more on the list?

NOWAK:

There are many challenges facing public health communicators. At the top of that list is lack of resources to do good communications, followed by lack of time to do good communications. Good communications often starts with listening, with being able to understand your audience or who you're talking to so you can come up with messages that address their concerns and questions effectively. And it probably may require persistence. And those are all the kinds of things that are hard to get, particularly if there's an infectious disease outbreak or you need people to act quickly.

JOHNSON:

There's been a lot of discussion at this conference about tools, and you touched on that a little bit. Do you think tools are the answer?

NOWAK:

I think tools are part of the answer. I think we need as many tools as we can that will help us either gather information that we otherwise wouldn't be able to gather, to help us convert information into knowledge and insights that we wouldn't otherwise have.

But I don't think tools can replace us in terms of effectively doing communications, talking to people, listening to people, and developing messages that actually address their concerns and worries.

JOHNSON:

And that takes a lot of time, which sometimes communicators—the people they work for don't wanna spend that amount of time on it. Is that a mistake?

NOWAK:

Yes, it's absolutely a mistake that we don't spend the time and resources on it.

I'm often struck by people realize that we're having difficult conversations, but then they want to have quick ways of having those conversations. And I don't know that difficult conversations and "quick and easy" can be reconciled. I don't think they can.

Being effective requires trust. Trust requires relationships, trust requires listening, trust requires dialogue, and I think those are the things we always need to be doing as communications people.

JOHNSON:

A lot of the people who listen to this newscast every morning are not communicators, in terms of that being their primary job. They are leaders in public health departments, they're running departments for governors in states and territories. What should they hear from the message you delivered here in Atlanta? What do they need to know?

NOWAK:

I think they need to know that good communications takes time. It takes effort. It takes listening. It's dialogue. A lot of things that we as communications people would recommend may seem counterintuitive, but they're often based on a lot of experience working on the front lines, talking to people, listening to people, and then trying to address their concerns and worries so that they will at least consider, if not do, what we're recommending that they do.

 

JOHNSON:

That'll do it for today's newscast. We're back Monday morning with more ASTHO news and information.

I'm Robert Johnson. You're listening to Public Health Review Morning Edition. Have a great weekend.

Glen Nowak PhD

Director, Center for Health and Risk Communication, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Georgia