When I entered nonprofit health communications five years ago, it seemed to be a natural bridge between my professional background in journalism and my shiny new Master’s in health policy. After accepting a role as the communications manager of a small health nonprofit in Washington, D.C., I imagined a fast-paced world of writing press releases, pitching op-eds, and hob-nobbing with policymakers on Capitol Hill.

But communicating the importance of health topics, it turned out, wasn’t so simple—face time and press time are both hard-earned victories when you’re competing with so many other worthy causes. Sure, there was the basic hurdle of turning science jargon into language the average person can understand. But that was easy compared to dealing with what seemed to be a head-in-the-sand mentality among lawmakers and laypeople alike.

Remember when former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer used a shorter bill page count as justification for proposing health cuts?

While population health and access to care are key factors contributing to economic growth, quality of life and overall happiness, their significance and influence on non-health sectors is woefully under-acknowledged by lawmakers. This is in no small part due to the difficult balance required to carry out an engaging, accurate discussion on most health issues. Health matters are complicated, personal, and often highly technical—it’s easy to want to cut corners or avoid the subject altogether. Especially in fickle and fast-paced political cycles, long-term health challenges are more likely to be headscratchers than kingmakers.

In my current role as NCDFREE’s communications lead, I still encounter these challenges every day. How can we make people care about non-communicable diseases (NCDs) when most people don’t even know what an NCD is? How can we instill a sense of urgency when our goals are set over decades rather than political cycles?

I was excited to take a deep dive into advocacy at NCDFREE’s most recent Bootcamp in Copenhagen. Organised in conjunction with the Danish Red Cross, the ICFC, and the University of Copenhagen School of Global Health, the Bootcamp brought together health workers, advocacy professionals, and health experts to discuss NCDs in humanitarian settings. Throughout my two days there, I was inspired by the collaborations and speakers, and reminded of the importance of taking fresh takes on longstanding policy goals.

Here are a few takeaways— 

  1. Know your audience.

I know, I know. This seems like Advocacy 101, but even professionals in the field need to be reminded of this sometimes. It’s easy to fall into a rut of talking to the same people and getting the same results (or lack thereof). Engaging with partners, stakeholders, and policymakers requires continuous research—who are your key contacts? Are they open to collaboration? What are their objectives, and how might they have been affected by policy changes at the organizational, national, or international levels? Elections, staffing changes, and strategy shifts can have very strong effects on policy outcomes. Advocacy initiatives therefore need to take these changes into account and be prepared to adapt.

  1. Break it down.

When setting our policy goals, we should reach for the stars—but when asking for change, we need to stay grounded. Whether you’re aiming to get a lawmaker, a business, or an international organization to pay attention to your cause, you’ll need to figure out what motivates them (see Point 1) and shape your messages and asks accordingly. Present the problem in terms they’ll understand and care about, and ask them for changes that are within the realm of their capacity. Keeping SMART goal-setting in mind serves as a good starting point.

  1. Listen up!…and down, and around.

In one behemoth of a health organization I worked for, the communications team was in a separate universe from the “technical” staff (e.g. doctors, researchers, and field teams). Even though we were sitting a matter of metres from each other in the office, a chasm between us had become the status quo. In-person conversations were difficult to come by, and the communications staff rarely knew exactly what the technical staff were up to (and vice versa). This led to a complete lack of cohesive advocacy goal-setting, and a general disconnect between the work being done and what was being communicated about it.

Members of the NCDFREE team at the Copenhagen Bootcamp

While I (luckily) have moved on to greener communications pastures, I know that such disconnects are relatively common in the health communications world. Talking to such a wide range of health workers and advocacy professionals at the Bootcamp was a great reminder of the importance of having everyone around the same table. To understand the challenges we face (and what our programs need to succeed) we must listen to voices from throughout our organisations and the health sector in general. If you’re having trouble breaking the ice, try hosting a workshop or workplace social—or just introduce yourself to someone new near the coffeemaker and get chatting!