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Messages Are More Than a Collection of Words

Guest Post: Julie Ann Eastling

Any organization working for social change knows how difficult crafting “just the right” message can be and how easily sound bites and headlines can alter the meaning behind the message.

At the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation, we commissioned Wilder Research to examine the connections between health and median area income, education, race and neighborhood conditions in the Twin Cities 7-county metro area. The results were similar to what has been found in other areas of the country, and yet different because of Minnesota’s unique demographics, with large populations of immigrant groups and the largest urban Native American population in the country.

The Unequal Distribution of Health in the Twin Cities report reveals that:

  • An increase of $10,000 in an areas’ median income (not individual income), “buys” its residents an additional year of life.
  • Children born into the highest income/lowest poverty areas can expect to live 8 years longer than those born into the lowest income/highest poverty areas.
  • Life expectancy varies greatly by race in the Twin Cities, ranging from a high of 83 years for Asians to 61.5 years for American Indians.

What do you do with those numbers? Report them very carefully. We engaged the assistance of Lori Dorfman of Berkeley Media Studies Group to help frame the messages. Two responses we did NOT want to elicit were:

  • So you live in a crappy neighborhood, move!
  • Why should I care about the people who live in a bad area — my area is great.

We wanted “influencers” to understand that it’s a community problem and requires community solutions.

Drawing on Dorfman’s suggestion, we invited eight community leaders from different sectors to prepare written responses to the report  — outlining what they view as challenges or barriers to reducing health inequities, what’s working in their community and to offer a policy change that could help make a difference.  Some of these solutions are included in a companion piece to the report we developed titled Revealing Socioeconomic Factors That Influence Your Health. We released the report, companion piece and thought papers to select media on an embargoed basis prior to the report’s public release. Nearly 300 people attended the release event to hear the report findings and responses by 4 of the thought paper authors. We separately interviewed/videotaped all 8 authors for multiple use clips.

We were very pleased with the results, which included page 1 stories in both daily papers. While a couple of the headlines went down the path of individual health/wealth, the reporters did an excellent job with the stories.

Minnesota Public Radio
Star Tribune
St. Paul Pioneer Press

Anyone have similar experiences you care to share? Questions?

Julie Ann Eastling (formerly Lee) is a Program Communications Consultant at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation


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