A case study in the intersection between health, media and policy

May 14, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Health Policy, Journalism, Media business, Public Health, Storytelling, Strategic planning, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My latest blog post for the Center for Health, Media and Policy at Hunter College/CUNY addresses a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while — the challenge of clearly and effectively communicating clinical guidelines in a world that demands evidence-based medicine and effectiveness research but isn’t always so welcoming when the data doesn’t match “conventional wisdom” or there is genuine disagreement about how to best care for and advise patients.

The “case study” I refer to is the 2009 release of new mammography screening guidelines by the US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). I was reminded of the potential lessons in strategic communications to be learned here by a study and accompanying commentary recently published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, where I’m pleased to serve as Editor-at-Large. I had nothing to do with these papers, but their review of and perspective on both public perception of the guidelines and media coverage of their release is rather enlightening.

As an AJPM editor, I’m more than happy to hear what you have to think about this topic. Email me at bsilberg@ucsd.edu with any comments.

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How is Philanthropy Using Technology to Advance its Goals? Listen to “Talking Philanthropy” and Find Out

April 4, 2011 at 9:21 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Digital strategy, Multimedia, Philanthropy 2.0, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

My colleague Larry Blumenthal and I have just posted the latest installment in the monthly Talking Philanthropy podcast series that we do in collaboration with Philanthropy News Digest. It’s an interview that Larry and I did with Holly Ross, Executive Director of the Nonprofit Technology Network during NTEN’s recent annual conference in Washington, DC.

Larry and I chatted with Holly about a range of issues relating to how the philanthropic sector is using technology to do its work more effectively.  It was pretty obvious from the overflow crowds at the meeting — more than 2,000 people attended, compared with about 50 just 10 years earlier — that the sector is alive with innovation and creativity. We hope you’ll take a listen to Holly’s incisive comments and let us know what you think.

If you missed the inaugural installment in the series, our interview with Doug White, academic director of the George H. Heyman, Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at New York University, please take a listen. And do stay tuned for future interviews.

A thousand words… at least

December 8, 2009 at 12:08 pm | Posted in Communications strategy, Digital strategy, Multimedia, Storytelling, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

We hear a lot in the communications community about how much better it is to show than to tell. This is one of the underpinnings of effective story-telling (no pun or irony meant) and the dramatically increased use of multimedia features in a range of vehicles developed by foundations, advocacy groups, NGOs and the like.

As some recent blog posts show, in today’s Google-ized world, the concept is especially useful when it comes to deciphering the mounds of data that come our way in ever-greater quantities and at an ever-faster pace. In such cases, “data visualization” can quickly bring very complex collections of information into stark and compelling focus.

Harvard Business Publishing offers a nice overview piece on this, Swimming in Data, by management and technology consultant John Sviokla, former Harvard Business School professor of marketing, MIS and decision sciences.

Reminding us of the quote often attributed to Napoleon, “A good sketch is better than a long speech…,” Sviokla suggests that enhanced data visualization methods is a natural way to cope with information overload. He says such techniques are efficient, can help to illustrate the basic nature of a problem and, if really good, “help create a shared view of a situation and align folks on needed action.” That last point has particular resonance for those of us in strategic communications.

Sviokla cites a few examples of how this theory works in practice, as does a recent post in the Science Roll blog (Bertalan Meskó, founder of Webicina.com). Science Roll points to a spiffy visualization on “The Cost of Getting Sick” on the very cool Flowing Data site. This series of interactive polar pie charts uses data from GE and the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to show what various conditions cost at different ages. Lead credit for the work goes to data designer Ben Fry, now the director of SEED visualization.

Of course, this latest generation of data visualization builds on years of work by others.  One of my personal heroes in the field is Nigel Holmes of Explanation Graphics (disclosure: Nigel did some work for me and my colleagues when I was at JAMA). Holmes is a former Time Magazine graphics director and was one of the most interesting and entertaining teachers at the now-dormant Stanford Publishing Course. And no discussion of how to effectively present data would be complete without a nod to visual communications guru Edward Tufte, professor emeritus at Yale and author of seven books, including one of the field’s Bibles, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.

Focus, focus, focus

November 1, 2009 at 8:17 pm | Posted in Business Models, Digital strategy, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

The Harvard Business Review recently offered an interesting review of the challenges that philanthropic organizations face in critically analyzing what their strategic goals, how well they’re meeting them, and how to adjust priorities to improve their performance.

The article, entitled “Galvanizing Philanthropy,” is especially timely given the varying degree of organizational review and program juggling that’s been going on at many foundations as a result of the squeeze the recession has put on endowments and portfolios. Note, an HRB subscription is required to see more than an article summary.

Interestingly, say authors Susan Wolf Ditkoff and Susan J. Colby of the non-profit consultants The Bridgespan Group, the challenge to focus based on objective analysis is one that philanthropies face regardless of the economic climate. It’s just that hard times bring things into much sharper relief.

How to best assess foundation performance is something a number of visionary philanthropies and their executives have talked about for a while. When I was running the communications and publishing group at The Commonwealth Fund, for example, this was a favorite topic of EVP/COO John Craig, who spoke and wrote about it extensively. One good example is John’s 2006 essay on assessing a foundation’s performance. He also wrote earlier this year about private foundations’ response to the “new financial realities” the recession rained down upon them.

Philanthropies are in this delicate spot because of the double-edged sword that is the essence of nonprofit, mission-driven organizations, the Harvard Business Review piece notes. These entities, “exempt from the accountability imposed on business by markets or on government by voters, are free to experiment and take risks,” it says. “But they have little experience in objectively evaluating their own performance or figuring out how to improve it.”

To give a sense of how to attack this issue, the authors look at how the James Irvine, Bill & Melinda Gates, Annie E. Casey, David and Lucile Packard, and Edna McConnell Clark Foundations worked to “get real” by focusing on key strategic “anchors” to optimize their resources and outcomes.

Obviously, the more focused a foundation’s overarching strategy, the more focused and potentially high-impact its communications strategy will be.

Thanks to my good friend and former Medscape colleague Mike Squires, now a top-drawer health IT consultant, for drawing my attention to this HBR article.

Dancing as fast as we can — takeaways from CommNet ’09

October 16, 2009 at 10:18 pm | Posted in Digital strategy, Multimedia, Social media, Storytelling, Strategic planning | Leave a comment

The Communications Network’s just-concluded annual conference provided equal installments of the cutting-edge — how to leverage social media — and the basic — how to craft and implement core communications strategies and overhaul your web site.

A squad of volunteers tweeted and blogged about the conference in real time. Rather than recount what other have already said far better than I, see the results of this useful and interesting experiment in using social media to discuss, among other things, how to best use social media, on the Network blog and archived Twitter stream.

My own thoughts, which I hope add some value to the ongoing conversation.

Social media. The biggest buzz. Keynoter Clay Shirky, an NYU professor and Web 2.0 big thinker, made me want to rush downtown to sign up for what must be a very entertaining and informative class. But I was also reminded that it’s important not to get too caught up in any evangelist’s fervor, even as they motivate you to a higher calling.

Shirky offered a series of compelling take-home messages about the revolutionary nature of the web in general and social media tools in particular, especially their ability to encourage unfettered information-sharing that can easily translate into calls to action. The good news – these tools offer those of us in strategic communications numerous opportunities to connect, monitor, listen and interact with audiences that not only are interested in what we do but can be helpful to advancing the goals of the institutions for which we work. The big challenge – getting past the notion that we can exert the same level of “message control” in this vigorous e-discourse that we might through more traditional one-way channels. As Shirky notes, “give it up” (you might want to use that in your next communications planning memo to the boss).

I fully buy into the potentially substantial upside and the argument that if you’re not part of the conversation, you’re letting others define you. After all, the train is moving, fast, and we’re be best advised to hop on in some appropriate and useful fashion while the thing figures out where it’s going. I actually would have liked a little more leavening discussion from Shirky of the “dark side” of this ride; Frank Rich did cover that, in spades, the night before, in the broader context of how the media have been ripe for manipulation for decades and now it’s just a lot easier. But Shirky did remind us of the need to be sure that we’re weighing the value of these tools as we would any others. Because at the end of the day, that’s what they are – tools, to be used strategically and carefully, like any other.

Story-telling has been a popular theme in non-profit communications for years, a mantra for many of us trying to get the word out and engage key audiences with more than just the latest white paper. And so it was at this conference. My main takeaway here was a useful discussion of the tricky business of getting top-level buy-in for the notion (“that’s just not what we do”); program-level buy-in for  identifying and vetting the stories we want to tell (“I’m just too busy helping grantees effect real change”) and a realistic process for the storytelling itself, regardless of the media formats we choose to use.

Digital strategies, from web site overhauls to more aggressive use of multimedia to jumping into the social media space, are critical to get right, as we all know. And they should be intelligently and firmly integrated into an overall communications strategy that is a solid extension of clearly defined institutional goals, aligned fully with grant-making. So it was a reassuring reality check to hear that no one – not even some of the big guys – has quite yet reached this strategic Nirvana. At the end of the day, we’re all just doing the very best we can to get it right. And while there were plenty of tips about what to do and scores of suggestions of tools with which to experiment, the bottom lines were familiar and worth repeating, maybe even reTweeting.

  • Focus on a clear number of agreed-upon, critical goals.
  • Plan. Rinse. Repeat.
  • Work tirelessly for enterprise-wide buy-in, giving credit where it’s due.
  • Do your homework on technical issues (and get expert help if needed).
  • Establish performance baselines and realistic metrics for improvement.
  • Monitor progress over time and adjust as you go.
  • Don’t fall in love with gadgets.
  • Don’t kill good ideas with endless discussion.
  • Just try it.

How well will we have applied these lessons when we meet for next fall’s conference? And what will be the new new thing by then?

Stay tuned.

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