Is public health a dirty word Or two)? CDC Associate Director for Communication Katherine Lyon Daniel shared messaging tips for health communicators at the 2015 National Conference for Health Communication, Media and Marketing. Photo by APHA/Daniel Greenberg

Is “public health” a dirty word (or two)? CDC Associate Director for Communication Katherine Lyon Daniel shared messaging tips for health communicators at the 2015 National Conference on Health Communication, Media and Marketing. Photo by APHA/Daniel Greenberg

The following words should read like a slap in the face, but are important for all of us to consider:

Public health may be a “dirty word” to people not in the public health community.

This reality, delivered by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Associate Director for Communication Katherine Lyon Daniel at the 2015 National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media, spoke to the ability — or lack thereof — of health communicators worldwide to consistently share information that affects behavior in the ways that they want it to. She noticed it while sitting in on a study funded by the CDC Foundation, where a group of non-public health professionals used personal radio dials to turn the volume up when they liked words spoken by the moderator, or down if they didn’t like it. The group consistently did not like the words “public health.”

“So if we keep talking to people in the same words that we want to use then we’re not going to be understood in every media village,” Lyon Daniel said at the opening session of the conference, hosted by the National Public Health Information Coalition. “We have to adapt.

“When was the last time you went to a website or news channel that you think is biased and think about it freely and openly for some group of time? It would be torture, right? But we have to be open to other points of view. That urge to protect ourselves and the way we think is not new. We must adapt our language to fit our media village.”

APHA is exhibiting at the conference, which connects health communicators with marketers and media professionals that don’t exclusively focus on health, including Google, Deloitte, Porter Novelli, Batelle and ICF International. Most attendees are brought together by one commonality: the need to communicate effectively to improve health.

That might require a radical shift in what’s considered business as usual in public health. Keynote speaker Hugh MacLeod, an artist and author of the best-selling book, “Ignore Everybody: and 39 other keys to creativity,” said that businesses so often fail because they try to do the same things their peers are doing — and that the health sector is no exception.

But he has seen a little innovation lead to mutually beneficial outcomes. He and Jeff Shub, a doctor and partner at the publishing and advisory firm Gapingvoid, hung pieces of cartoon artwork at Miami-based hospital settings — like doctor’s offices, exam rooms, waiting areas and receptionists desks — to infuse personality into otherwise “depressing” environments.

One picture simply reads: “Our patients rock.” Another reads: “Good health isn’t something we can buy. But it’s a valuable savings account.” Ultimately, hospitals reported better health behaviors from their patients and “17-20 percent greater traffic,” according to MacLeod.

“Staying healthy is a pain in the ass; getting sick is a much bigger pain in the ass,” Shuh said, describing one of the art works. “It’s not the language you would see in a medical practice. This is real. This is something you can look at, laugh at and then make a connection with. And nothing happens until somebody feels something.”

Are public health communicators saying the right things? Join the discussion on APHA’s Facebook and Twitter pages.