Every health communicator knows the challenges of conceiving and executing a communications plan. There’s budget to consider, stakeholders to involve, media channels to pursue, and much more. Every health communicator also knows the importance of objectives. It doesn’t matter how fantastic your idea is if you don’t know what your goals are. Moreover, if doesn’t matter what your goals are unless you have a way to measure those goals. We’ve all been taught that we should create SMART goals. That is: specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.
But creating SMART goals is easier in some cases than others. In recent years, there has been a significant uptick in awareness campaigns. In May alone, we have National Osteoporosis Awareness Prevention Month, National Stroke Awareness Month, National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Month, Asthma and Allergy Awareness Month, National Critical Care Awareness and Recognition Month, Health Vision Month, National High Blood Pressure Education Month, and National Mental Health Month. All great causes, sure. But how do those behind the campaigns know that they are actually raising awareness?
According to a commentary published this month in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH), there are nearly 200 health awareness days officially recognized in the United States, and that does not account for all of the “unofficial” ones that are sponsored by individual organizations and associations. The AJPH article also states that there is no good evidence that awareness campaigns have the desired result (i.e., actually raising awareness among the target audience).
The pervasiveness of social media seems to have increased the profile of awareness campaigns. You may remember a few years ago when your Facebook friends, seemingly quite randomly, started posting status updates that said “beige” or “red lace.” This was an “awareness” campaign for breast cancer. Although it was popular in terms of those who participated by updating their status updates, it didn’t really do much to start a conversation about breast cancer. On the other hand, last year, millions of dollars were raised for ALS through the Ice Bucket Challenge—a campaign that was promoted and executed largely on social media.
Other organizations also say that they have seen a positive effect from awareness campaigns. Regarding Autism Awareness Day, which is held every year on April 2, and Autism Awareness Month, which is recognized for the entire month of April, the organization says it has seen results. More than $10 million was raised for the cause in April and more than 18,000 buildings around the world lit up blue in honor of the “Light it Blue” campaign.
There’s a term for activism on social media: slacktivism. Sometimes the pejorative term is accurate, but other times it is unnecessarily harsh. Social media allows us to reach large audiences with our message, and there are few better ways to spread the word about a campaign. However, changing a profile picture or posting the color of ones bra at times often seems more like an attempt to appear as if you are contributing to a cause without actually contributing anything. Unless money or other support follows, it doesn’t do much good.
Our job as health communicators is to help get campaigns to move beyond picture and status updates to real conversations that may prompt actual support for a cause.