Championing Public Health Amid Legal and Legislative Threats: Framing and Language Recommendations

To help the field make an effective case for public health, PHI’s Berkeley Media Studies Group and Real Language assessed narratives around the current attacks on public health’s authority to identify problematic language and opportunities for improvement.

  • Berkeley Media Studies Group and Real Language

As some politicians and their political allies try to shrink the authority of public health officials and agencies, it is critical that practitioners and advocates are equipped to speak about why we need public health to keep our communities safe and healthy. Public health actions meant to contain COVID may have inspired the latest attacks on public health authority, but if the attacks succeed, they will also damage every community’s ability to respond to climate change, reproductive justice, and inequities in the social factors that affect every other public health issue.

To help the field make an effective case for public health, PHI’s Berkeley Media Studies Group and Real Language, with support from ChangeLab Solutions and the Act for Public Health group, assessed narratives around the current attacks on public health’s authority to identify problematic language and opportunities for improvement. This report offers 5 key framing recommendations for change, along with an overview of strategic communication basics, messaging examples and sample language to answering difficult questions.

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“To respond to the legal attacks on public health, we must reframe the conversation with a focus on the landscape — the systems and conditions that support our collective well-being.”

Messaging Recommendations

Recommendation #1: Frame public health as indispensable, using metaphors when possible.

How an issue is framed matters because it shapes how an audience will understand what the problem is, who is responsible, and what needs to be done to fix it. Frames are mental pathways that get stronger by repetition. The more we hear an idea or a concept, the quicker our brains will go to this idea the next time we hear about it. The more a frame repeats that demonstrate public health as indispensable, the easier it will be for people to see public health’s necessary role in our society.

Recommendation #2: Lead with strengths and achievements, not deficits and weaknesses.

Order matters. Whatever the context, don’t start with the problem — start with why public health is indispensable. Illustrate its strengths and avoid emphasizing weaknesses or deficits. Showcasing what public health does well and what it can do for the greater good reminds audiences of the value of public health and why it is worthy of our public resources. You can do this by describing our collective achievements and positive impacts — e.g., “more than 210 million people have been fully vaccinated,” and “Millions of lives have been saved” — along with examples from your local context.

Recommendation #3: Boost the public’s confidence in public health, by using precise, active language and compelling images that demonstrate the field’s competence.

Now that self-interested political actors are actively trying to undermine its role, it is crucial that people understand public health’s purview and why public health’s authority is necessary to keep whole communities safe and healthy. Public health agencies need to be recognized as deserving of the authority they have. An emergency requires quick responses that help communities feel confident in their leaders, strengthening trust in public health and government. Public health advocates and practitioners must speak decisively and establish that public health workers are moving quickly and responsively, with accuracy and competence.

Recommendation #4: Use plain but descriptive language so anyone can understand what’s at stake.

In all communication materials, use plain but descriptive language that any audience can easily understand. Whenever you can, eliminate jargon, abbreviations, legalese, and academic or formal language from your message. Using simple, descriptive language is particularly important when speaking to the media or in other public forums. While decision-makers may be the primary audience, the media reach the public and our secondary audiences as well, and if they understand our words, they will have an easier time repeating the messages and pressuring decision-makers.

Recommendation #5: Emphasize how these bills block public health’s job to keep our community safe and healthy.

All of the recommendations in this guide so far are about clarifying the role and importance of public health. Depicting what public health does and why its work is indispensable puts the bills and lawsuits attacking public health in context. When advocating against a bill, you will always need to describe clearly and succinctly what public health is and why its authority to keep everyone healthy must remain intact. Without getting into the weeds about the policy, you can still trigger basic frames that help explain why the bill and the actors behind it are harmful to the healthy, safe communities we all need.

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Originally published by Berkeley Media Studies Group

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