What Drives Voting? Social Media Is the New Sticker

Oct 20

Last week, a Fast Company headline caught my eye – “The Surprising Genius of the ‘I Voted’ Sticker.” In the article, the author refers to a “simpler time” in the 1980s when the stickers were first introduced and explains the basic power of the sticker: social pressure. Many of us vote so that we can tell the world that we did; in turn, our peers feel pressured to vote. IMO, it’s the best use of stickers yet (save for all those scratch-and-sniffs in my elementary school sticker album!).

I Voted Sticker

There’s a theory to explain this—one that we use all the time as social marketers. It’s called the Social Learning Theory. Associated with psychologist Albert Bandura’s work in the 1960s, social learning theory explains how people learn new behaviors, values, and attitudes. He posits that behavior is regulated by its consequences, but only as those consequences are interpreted and understood by the individual. The outcome may be improved health status, physical appearance, economic gain, or some other perceived benefit.

In Ogilvy’s Social Change group, we often use this theory as the foundation for campaigns that are at the heart of our mission: to improve lives and effect change.

I write about this not to bore you with fancy theories, but rather to get to the heart of how we do what we do. The word “theory” often scares people, but the social learning theory is pretty straightforward and accessible. Sometimes affecting behavior is as simple as the peer pressure that results from a sticker.

Here’s an example of another type of social learning. In 2013, Ogilvy Washington created an award-winning campaign for the National Association of Broadcasters that chipped away at the stigma surrounding mental illness by creating an online community where teens and young adults struggling with mental health problems could open up and share their personal stories of recovery, tragedy, struggle, and hope. OK2TALK.org was a safe place where teens took cues from their peers on positive and productive ways to live with and get help for mental health problems. As a result, there was a 7% increase in calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (promoted prominently on OK2TALK.org) in July/August 2013 compared to 2012—approximately 13,000 calls.

Celebrities can also play a powerful role when it comes to social learning. In 2011, popstar Demi Lovato announced that she was living with depression and bipolar disorder. Since then, Lovato has partnered with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) and other groups to encourage teens to step out of the shadows, be vocal about their struggles, and get the help they need. Like OK2TALK, this is social learning theory in action: when people can identify with a recognizable peer, they have a greater sense of self-efficacy and then imitate the actions to learn the proper preventions and actions.

This is not to say that a celebrity spokesperson is the answer for every campaign, or that social learning theory is the best theory on which to base your campaign. From Stages of Change to the Diffusion of Innovation theory, there are many other useful theories we use as social marketers to reach and engage audiences, and sustain our connection with them.

But back to voting. As we (mercifully) count down the final days of this presidential election season, it’s worth talking about the evolution of the “I Voted” sticker. While many of us will still wear our “I Voted” stickers with pride on Election Day, a new badge of honor pervades. This isn’t breaking news, but social media has become a very powerful channel for social learning: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, etc. In fact, these may be the most important channels for influencing behavior today.

Last week, The New York Times reported on Facebook’s role in driving voter registration. With a four-day Facebook promotion in September, registrations rose drastically on the first day of the campaign compared with the day before, as reported by nine states.

From the Times: “In California, 123,279 people registered to vote or updated their registrations on Friday, Sept. 23, the first day that Facebook users were presented with the reminder. That was the fourth-highest daily total in the history of the state’s online registration site.”

So where does social learning theory come into play? Next to the voter registration reminder, Facebook included a button that allowed users to share the fact that they had registered. The same thing happens on Election Day—Facebook encourages you to share your “I Voted” message. This virtual sticker has the ability to be seen by my hundreds of Facebook friends—far more people than would physically see me and my “I Voted” sticker.

So here’s the bottom line: It’s just the same as it always was. Peer pressure works. But now our circle of influence is much, much larger. Use it for good, people. Vote, and when you do, wear and share your sticker.

Wanted: Blood, Urine, and a Soil Sample from Your Yard

Oct 03

The Precision Medicine Initiative is a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease.

The Precision Medicine Initiative is a bold new research effort to revolutionize how we improve health and treat disease.

What would it take to get you to participate in a government study in which you and 999,999 other people committed to providing personal health data and blood and urine samples for at least 10 years?

This summer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced $55 million in awards to build the foundation and infrastructure needed to launch the Cohort Program of President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI). The PMI Cohort Program is a landmark longitudinal research effort that aims to engage 1 million U.S. participants to improve our ability to prevent and treat disease based on individual differences in lifestyle, environment, and genetics.

No other government study of its kind comes close to recruiting this many participants. For comparison, the government’s well-known, population-based Framingham Heart Study has enrolled 15,447 participants since it started in 1948. The PMI Cohort Program aims to recruit 79,000 participants in its first year.

A recent NIH survey showed that 54% of respondents would definitely or probably participate in the PMI Cohort Program if asked. While 79% of respondents supported the study, the two groups who were less inclined to participate were those with fewer years of education and those ages 60 and above.

The promise of precision medicine has grown as Americans are engaging in improving their health and participating in health research more than ever before, electronic health records have been widely adopted, genomic analysis costs have dropped significantly, data science has become increasingly sophisticated, and health technologies have become mobile.

Although official recruitment for the program is not yet underway, NIH is using several key messages to encourage participation:

#1 – Precision medicine is an emerging approach for disease treatment and prevention that takes into account individual variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle for each person. Doctors could eventually use the PMI Cohort Program data to shape treatment for an individual patient, rather than using standard treatments that may not work for everyone.

#2 – Anyone living in the U.S. will be able to participate in the PMI Cohort Program. Volunteers will be asked to share data including information from their electronic health records and health questionnaires. Participants will also undergo a standard baseline physical evaluation and provide blood and urine samples. Participants may be asked to provide health data on lifestyle habits and environmental exposures as well, from activity-tracking devices like Fitbit.

#3 – A foundation of diverse partners will ensure that the cohort is representative of our country’s diversity. NIH has selected four regional medical centers, six Federally Qualified Health Centers, and the VA as initial partners—improving the ability to reach large numbers of potential volunteers, which contributes to the overall diversity of the participants and regions reached by this phase of the program.

#4 – Personal health information won’t be held behind a veil of secrecy… Patients will have access to their own data so they can participate fully in decisions about their health that affect them. Officials say they want patients to be partners in the research, not just “human subjects.” To that end, patients will have access to all the information about themselves, including laboratory and genetic test results.

#5 – But it will be protected! Maintaining data security and privacy will be paramount to maintaining participants’ trust and engagement. The program will engage teams of privacy experts and employ rigorous security testing models, develop participant education with regard to privacy and potential re-identification risk, and clearly articulate response plans in the case of a privacy breach.

As NIH moves forward with the rollout of the PMI Cohort Program, I look forward to following how they manage a variety of related communications considerations:

  • Research to understand participant motivators. Will people respond best to messaging that puts them at the center of advancing medicine? Will they be driven by the opportunity to save others’ lives or improve their own condition? Answers to these types of questions will aide in developing clear, audience-based messages and materials.
  • Channel strategy. To recruit 1 million people, NIH is going to have to get creative about how it reaches people, while at the same time respecting the boundaries of IRB. The importance of an online presence goes without saying, but how will NIH use new and emerging social platforms for communications efforts? What channels will reach less educated and older Americans?
  • Crisis communications. Security breaches. Unexpected negative findings. When crisis hits—as it inevitably does—how will NIH respond? By having crisis-planning templates and checklists “at the ready,” NIH will be steps ahead in a crisis situation.
  • Media relations. A government program of this size will draw a significant amount of media interest. How can NIH recognize and take advantage of the media’s interest? What strategies will NIH use to maximize the reach of program results?


The PMI will enable a new era of medicine in which researchers, providers, and patients work together to develop individualized care. But its success depends on how NIH uses communications to recruit and retain participants, the strength and scope of the participant pool—and ultimately, how the data trove is used.

Top Picks from Day 2 of the Social Good Summit

Sep 20

Day 2 of the Social Good Summit was also very uplifting and attendees walked away with the clear directive to aim high and use your voice to affect change. Every talk was inspiring, but here are my top picks:

The Summit began with a big salute to the 17 UN Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) who were selected from more than 18,000 nominations. These leaders will work with the Office of the UN Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth to engage young people on the most pressing SDGs. Winners included:

  • Ankit Kawatra, Founder and Chairman of Feeding India, founded Feeding India in 2014 to address two issues at once – hunger and food waste.
  • Trisha Shetty, Founder and CEO of SheSays, a platform to educate, rehabilitate and empower women to take direct action against sexual assault in India.
  • Samir Mezghanni, a Tunisian-Iraqi author of over 100 short stories for children and 14 books focused on advocating for youth empowerment in Tunisia.


Actor Alec Baldwin and activist Patricia Gualinga at the Social Good Summit. Image: Mashable

Actor Alec Baldwin and activist Patricia Gualinga at the Social Good Summit. Image: Mashable

Actor Alec Baldwin spoke with Ecuadorian advocate Patricia Gualinga about the dangers of de-forestation on climate change. Patricia explained that in order to reach our SDGs on climate change, as well as follow the Paris Climate Agreement, we must focus on protecting our forests. Indigenous people from countries such as Ecuador are not receiving enough support from their government to protect against illegal logging and extracting industries, and as a result, carbon will release into the atmosphere at faster rates. Indigenous people don’t want their trees destroyed.

You could hear a pin drop as Vice President Joe Biden delivered a passionate speech on the Cancer Moonshot. He stated, “at no time in history have we had so much power… available to make a difference for so many people.” Biden believes that “we can double the rate of progress towards curing cancer in if we all work together.” So here’s what governments, cancer research centers, drug companies and health care systems around the globe must do:

  • Data sharing and technology: Standardize data and make it easily accessible to researchers around the globe. Example: The Department of Energy will work with Norway to share cervical cancer screening data. Technology systems like IBM Watson can help researchers and clinicians work more efficiently.
  • Redesigning cancer clinical trials: Bring the FDA and the private sector together to design smarter and more efficient clinical trials by modifying the criteria for who can participate and by sharing control groups across studies.
  • Join with other nations to strengthen cancer research and treatment: To that end, Biden announced the creation of regional hubs funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), focusing on the cancers that pose the greatest problems in that region.
  • Continue research on more targeted treatments: Immuno-oncology drugs have significantly advanced the way we treat the most intractable cancers, such as melanoma and lung cancer. These treatments work in ways never imaginable – by boosting immune systems instead of killing healthy cells.


I am looking forward to next year’s Summit and hearing about the amazing progress we have made across a number of critical issues, especially in the areas of global cancer control, antibiotic resistance, gender equality and climate change. Ultimately, almost everything discussed over the course of the Summit is rooted in behavior change programs that work at the individual, community and policy levels.

3 Themes from Day 1 of the Social Good Summit

Sep 19

Social Good Summit logo

I am very excited to be attending the Social Good Summit at the 92nd Street Y. Day One of the Summit–which examines the impact of technology and new media on social good initiatives around the world–focused on the following themes:

  1. To address core problems facing the globe, change must happen at the individual, community, policy and corporate levels.
  2. Steps taken now that result in positive change will ensure our children and grandchildren live better lives.
  3. We cannot see lasting change here in the U.S. unless we all work together to help address issues affecting developing countries around the globe. The U.S. has an obligation to lead the charge; this is no different from how we helped Europe and Japan rebuild after WWII.


Against these themes, experts, thought leaders and entrepreneurs shared the specific ways we can make a difference and reach our Sustainable Development Goals, which in total, are a fundamental promise to save and protect lives around the globe. Here are some highlights:

Addressing Gender Equality Has a Positive Impact on Developing Nations

Societies benefit when women who have access to education, health care and food. However, in order to truly tackle gender equality issues, we must do several things:

  • Ensure there are more women in top government leadership positions. Said UNDP Helen Clark and Former President of Malawi, Joyce Banda: “Women in leadership have to be tougher. We need to roll out the carpet ourselves and kick down the door. And when you get to the top, drop the ladder down for others to follow.”
  • UNF’s Emily Courey spoke about the need to improve access to better data that provides a more complete picture of issues affecting women in developing countries.
  • Jean Case, founder of the Case Foundation, encouraged investment by VCs to fund female entrepreneurs to tackle the most daunting challenges around gender inequality.


Using Technology for the Sake of Humanity

In order to truly seed innovation at a rapid pace, film producer and entrepreneur Mick Ebeling says we must embark on a “Revolution against the absurd.” That means following this simple rule: “Elect to commit and then figure it out.”

In other words, say “yes” to tackling an issue even before you have a solution. That philosophy has already resulted in major breakthroughs. Just recently, Mick lead the creation of an eye writer for an ALS patient who was completely paralyzed and created a 3-D prosthetic for a young boy in Sudan who lost both his arms in a bombing.

Teddy Goff, Chief Digital Strategist for Hillary Clinton, spoke of the importance of storytelling through video. Video shared via social media reveals injustices. The downside: the rapid pace of profiling injustices fuels feelings of slowness to address society’s greatest problems.

Launching behavior change programs that spark a global movement can turn the tide around key issues affecting developing nations, including climate change and antibiotic resistance.

We heard the head of the GAVI Alliance, Dr. Seth Berkley, discuss how fighting anti-microbial resistance (aka the emergence of super bugs) – requires the collaboration of policy makers, people, pharmaceutical companies and physicians on the proper use of antibiotics to treat infections. Otherwise bugs will continue “to have sex” at a crazy pace.

According to Mary Robinson, UN Special Envoy for El Nino and Climate, we need a global movement not for climate change, but for climate justice. This means elevating climate change as a social issue because it must occur in a way where land rights are respected and gender equality is ensured.

More to come! On today’s agenda Vice President Joe Biden, Alec Baldwin and Jane Goodall.


How the World Wins When Presidents Survive Disease

Sep 15

As Barack Obama’s presidency comes to an end, there’s a lot of discussion about legacy and predictions about how he’ll be remembered. It has me thinking about how we remember the other men who have held that high office. Those who are considered our top presidents have profound epitaphs, but their contributions to public health barely make it onto their Wikipedia pages.

Mount Rushmore

What if more U.S. presidents were remembered for their contributions to public health?

Our first president, George Washington, was the incredibly skilled commander of the Continental Army, he was the first to sign the U.S. Constitution, and he was unanimously elected president in the country’s first two elections.

Well before all of that, when Washington was 19 years old, he contracted smallpox. He survived the disease, which killed 1 of 3 people who were infected, and lived with its characteristic facial scarring for the rest of his life.

Whatever lessons Washington may have learned from this experience, perhaps the most valuable was the lesson that because he had been infected with and survived smallpox, he wouldn’t be at risk of getting it in the future. He was immune, like all the others who had survived the disease.

He had to act on that lesson as a military leader. The formation of the Continental Army itself was the first time that so many men from across the colonies came together in one place (since people didn’t usually travel much then), so it was a natural breeding ground for disease. In some ways, it was the first, albeit accidental, laboratory for public health in the U.S.

Whenever there was an outbreak or a situation in which smallpox might be a factor, Washington would send in soldiers that had already endured the disease to avoid an outbreak among his troops. It was an effective strategy, but Washington knew that variolation (a method of immunizing with a mild form of the disease) was far better—especially as it was believed that the British were using smallpox as a form of biological warfare.

There was a lot of skepticism and objection to the practice of vaccination in Washington’s day. But he pressed forward, saying: “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army . . . we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.”

Washington had to resist the desire to inoculate all the troops at once because he knew that he couldn’t survive the war with all of his men sidelined for the month necessary to recuperate. Instead, he instituted a controversial system where new recruits would be inoculated with smallpox immediately upon enlistment. As a result, soldiers would contract the milder form of the disease at the same time that they were being outfitted with uniforms and weapons. Soldiers would consequently be completely healed, inoculated, and supplied by the time they left to join the army.

By the end of 1777, nearly 40,000 troops had been inoculated, and the smallpox infection rate among soldiers dropped from 17 to one percent. Washington showed the soldiers and people of his time that the best way to avoid diseases like smallpox was vaccination.

It took more than 200 years after Washington’s contributions, but in 1979 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the global eradication of smallpox. It is one of only two infectious diseases that has been eradicated globally—the other is rinderpest, a cattle-borne disease eradicated in 2011.

Nearly 150 years after Washington was in office, Franklin Delano Roosevelt established his own legacy: he ended Prohibition, pulled the country out of the Great Depression, and bolstered Allied Forces during World War II.

FDR also had polio, which he contracted at age 39 in 1921.

As president, FDR founded the organization that eventually became the March of Dimes. Donations to the March of Dimes funded research seeking a cure for the disease and laid the foundation for Jonas Salk’s successful development and implementation of a vaccine against the virus in 1952. Polio was declared eradicated in the United States in 1979.

Despite this success, polio still hasn’t achieved worldwide elimination. Learning that there were less than 100 cases diagnosed in 2015 might lead you to believe that worldwide eradication is imminent. Frustratingly, it’s not. In a 2011 New York Times article, Don McNeil reported: “Although caseloads are down more than 99 percent since the [global eradication] campaign began in 1985, getting rid of the last 1 percent has been like trying to squeeze Jell-O to death. As the vaccination fist closes in one country, the virus bursts out in another.”

The good news is that we have the diagnostic tools to detect polio and an effective intervention (a vaccine), so in theory it’s possible to eradicate the disease. India is the latest country to have officially stopped transmission of polio—with its last reported case in 2011. Only three countries remain where the disease is endemic—Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

So while we’re inundated with stories of email servers and 50 ft. walls this election season, a more important topic of conversation is what type of public health legacy our next president has the opportunity to leave. The reality is that a president doesn’t have to survive disease for the world to win. When our next president leaves office, polio or another disease could be eradicated. I think it’s a worthy and achievable goal.

ColorComm 2016 – Inspiring and Enlightening Time with Women of Color in Communications

Aug 05

Public relations agencies have increasingly been under scrutiny for their lack of racial, ethnic, and gender diversity at senior management levels. Women of color grapple with these issues on a daily basis—highlighting the reality that all communications professionals must play a role in addressing this problem.

To better understand these dynamics, several members of the Ogilvy Washington Social Change team attended the 2016 ColorComm annual conference and retreat, July 20-22, 2016 in Key Biscayne, FL. ColorComm is the only organization for women of color in communications. Several Fortune 500 companies and communications agencies – both large and small – were represented at this year’s meeting. This year’s theme, “Leading the Way,” focused on matters of importance to women of color in the industry including the lack of women in the C-Suite of PR firms, the impact of social media as it relates to multicultural marketing, financial insights and tips, and intimate talks with some of the most influential women of color in the industry.

Attendees were challenged to: 1. Speak Up 2. Follow Up and 3. Step Up. As Lauren Wesley Wilson, Founder & President of ColorComm described this year’s theme, if you want something in your current role, speak up; follow up with the people you are trying to get in front of; and most importantly, step up, because opportunity does not knock on your timeframe and it may not come around again.

On the first day of the conference, Ogilvy sponsored a panel discussion entitled, “Tapping Into Your Creative Genius,” led by Jennifer Risi, Managing Director, Ogilvy Media Influence; Kathy Baird, Executive Vice President, Ogilvy Content + Social; Lily Eng, Vice President, Technology & Ogilvy Media Influence; and Stacey Ryan-Cornelius, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Financial Controller. This discussion was a powerful moment to kick off the conference because it set the tone for an open and comfortable forum to discuss social issues.

Other distinguished panelists included motivational speaker Lisa Nichols who was featured in the movie, “The Secret,” which teaches the principles of abundance and attraction. Nichols’ session, “How to Live an Abundant Life,” was enlightening because it normalized our ubiquitous struggle with work-life balance.

In addition, I’m pleased to say that one of the major outcomes from this year’s conference is to create an inter-agency task force led by Lisa Ross, Managing Director at Apco Worldwide, focused on the barriers preventing women and people of color from leading in the C-suite of PR firms. The goal will be to create long-term, sustainable solutions that eliminate barriers and a call for application of those solutions industry wide.

Ogilvy colleagues left this year’s sold-out ColorComm conference inspired and fulfilled by the conversations of change and progress. We are pleased that Ogilvy has made a commitment to making diversity a priority within the company (see Ogilvy’s philosophy on Diversity & Inclusion) and look forward to seeing sustainable changes in the industry in the very near future.

I will close with a Facebook post by Stuart Smith, Global CEO, Ogilvy Public Relations, who commented, “Had great time with friends and colleagues at Colorcomm 2016. Diversity & Inclusion. Right for our people. Right for our clients. Right for our business. Right. Period.”

Please see related ColorComm posts from Ogilvy colleagues, Jen Risi, and Jean-Rene Zetrenne, Chief Talent Officer, Ogilvy & Mather: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-risi/colorcomm-2016-seize-this_b_11051422.html and http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jennifer-risi/qa-with-jene-rene-zetrenn_b_11133872.html.color comm group photo

Lesson on Infographics from John Snow (no, not that Jon Snow)

Jan 12

Data visualization. Information architecture. Infographic.

These are buzz words in the modern communications environment where the ability to show processes, statistics, and messages in a visually pleasing way has become communications gold. The growth of communications platforms like Facebook and Twitter has driven the value of graphic content, including infographics, which can be shared with the click of a button.

But what makes a good infographic?

In his 1983 book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, data visualization pioneer Edward Tufte says that ‘graphical displays’ should:

  • Show the data;
  • Induce the viewer to think about the substance rather than about methodology, graphic design, the technology of graphic production, or something else;
  • Avoid distorting what the data have to say;
  • Present many numbers in a small space;
  • Make large data sets coherent;
  • Encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data;
  • Reveal the data at several levels of detail, from a broad overview to the fine structure;
  • Serve a reasonably clear purpose: description, exploration, tabulation, or decoration; and
  • Be closely integrated with the statistical and verbal descriptions of a data set.


He also claims that: Graphics reveal data. That’s an important point.

I’ve always appreciated the power of a good infographic, but during a recent trip to London I got a fortuitous lesson on the history of the tool when I was introduced to John Snow.

Way back in the 1850s (when, forget Facebook, the first transatlantic telegraph cable was laid), Snow was a skeptic of the then-dominant theory that diseases such as cholera and bubonic plague were caused by pollution or “bad air.” The germ theory of disease had not yet been developed, so Snow did not understand the mechanism by which the disease was transmitted. He first publicized his theory in an 1849 essay, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, followed by a more detailed treatise in 1855 incorporating the results of his investigation of the role of the water supply in the Soho epidemic of 1854.

By talking to local residents, he identified the source of the outbreak as the public water pump on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). Although Snow’s examination of a water sample from the Broad Street pump did not conclusively prove its danger, his studies of the pattern of the disease were convincing enough to persuade local officials to disable the well pump by removing its handle. This action has been commonly credited as ending the outbreak.

Snow later used a dot map to illustrate the cluster of cholera cases around the pump. He also used statistics to illustrate the connection between the quality of the water source and cholera cases—showing that the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company was taking water from sewage-polluted sections of the Thames and delivering the water to homes, leading to an increased incidence of cholera. Snow’s study was a major event in the history of public health and geography. It is regarded as the founding event of the science of epidemiology.

Cool, huh?

Original map by John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854.

Original map by John Snow showing the clusters of cholera cases in the London epidemic of 1854.

Snow’s Soho infographic was simple, but brilliant. By plotting cholera deaths by household, as well as the location of the water pumps, it truly revealed the data that pinpointed the source of that cholera outbreak and identified the sewage-polluted water system as the carrier of the disease.

What else made it a good infographic? Well, by Tufte’s standards, it encouraged the eye to compare different pieces of data (volume and location of cholera deaths vis-à-vis the local water pumps). Though the map doesn’t convey the population of the area, it does show that the largest cluster of deaths was closest to the Broad Street Pump—and as you get further and further away from the pump, deaths were less frequent. In part as a result of this map, when the next big cholera epidemic threatened London, authorities acknowledged that water was the problem and told residents to boil their water. And that was the last cholera outbreak to hit London.

As a communications professional, I’ve helped produce my fair share of infographics for clients. I’ve seen plenty of excellent ones that tick off most or all of Tufte’s criteria. (Check out a few of the latest recognized in The Best American Infographics 2015, featured on Popular Science.) But I’ve also seen some bad infographics. I won’t call any out here, but these examples generally forsake the data for creativity or vice versa.

For me, Tufte’s guidelines and Snow’s work reinforce the importance of the Ogilvy twin peaks of creativity and effectiveness—a driving philosophy that we strive for creativity in the unique ways in which we help our clients solve their problems while, at the same time, focus relentlessly on our effectiveness so we have undeniable proof that our creativity makes a meaningful difference.

Not every infographic is going to save lives, but we should remember that they indeed can.

London, January 2016. Outside the John Snow pub with the plaque recognizing the location of the Broad Street Pump and John Snow’s discovery of in 1854 that cholera is conveyed by water.

London, January 2016. Outside the John Snow pub with the plaque recognizing the location of the Broad Street Pump and John Snow’s discovery in 1854 that cholera is conveyed by water.

Please note: I borrowed liberally from Wikipedia for the background on John Snow and the Soho cholera outbreak.

You Are What You Tweet

Aug 13

‘Slice of life’ tweets have been some of the most scorned content on the Internet. Who really cares if you’re frying up grass-fed bacon by the pound or binge watching the latest season of House of Cards from your couch? Most of us consider this the custard-like filling of the Twittersphere—lots of calories, little substance.

However, by virtue of sheer volume, these very tweets may be useful for tracking and forecasting health-related behavior if the data can be extracted in an accurate and efficient manner. Increasingly, ‘big data’ innovators are harvesting the 200 billion tweets posted each year to help inform and influence public health efforts in a growing field known as computational health science.

Take the Lexicocalorimeter for example. Researchers at the University of Vermont developed this online, interactive tool to measure the caloric intake and output of Twitter posts by building an extensive list of foods and activities and assigning each a number of calories. The rough ratios of these measures are presented by state to establish a real-time ranking of caloric balance.

Generated by the Lexicocalorimeter, the maps below show which food and activity was most significant for each state at a given point in time. For example, “tomatoes” and “dancing” lead in California while “cake” and “eating” are most popular in Mississippi, the most obese state in the nation. Turns out the tool’s caloric balance data strongly correlates with health stats reported by the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System—the gold standard of behavioral surveillance.

Lexicocalorimeter image

There also have been a number of efforts to use social media to track and predict the magnitude and progress of the flu. During the 2012-2013 flu season, scientists from Johns Hopkins University and George Washington University developed a Twitter tracking system that was 93 percent accurate when compared to national flu data collected by CDC (“National and Local Influenza Surveillance through Twitter: An Analysis of the 2012-2013 Influenza Epidemic”).

Flu twitter graphic

To achieve this level of accuracy, researchers had to create an algorithm that would separate chatter from useful information. For example, one problem with mining Twitter to determine flu incidence is that people aren’t just using the platform to discuss their own exposure or symptoms, but also to discuss the flu in general (especially after relevant news coverage). There are also thousands of tweets that need to be weeded out even though they include relevant terms (e.g., “Bieber fever” or “the cost of gas makes me sick”).

While there are opportunities and challenges to consider, both of these examples indicate that Twitter has the power to track and predict public health issues.

Benefits and Challenges chart

Benefits and challenges associated with using Twitter to inform public health efforts.

We must consider how we can use this information as health communications professionals. For the most part, my day-to-day interaction with Twitter revolves around the content that clients can push out and less on how they can listen and learn from what others are posting. But clearly there is a lot to learn and act upon if we spend more time harnessing the power of Twitter.

To start, we should use this type of data to inform awareness, education, and behavior change efforts by better understanding when and why people are collectively talking about particular public health topics or activities. With insights gleaned from tools like the Lexicocalorimeter, we can design education and outreach efforts with tailored, state-specific health messages; with flu data, we can predict where and when illnesses will spread, providing public health systems with advanced warnings and more time to pull together necessary resources.

Twitter data can also be used to identify misperceptions around health issues, therefore, informing what audiences to target with communications efforts. The Hopkins analysis of flu-related tweets found that a significant number of people were taking antibiotics to treat flu symptoms; however, we know that antibiotics don’t treat the flu, which is a virus. This valuable insight should be used to help inform messaging for flu experts interacting with the media and future antibiotic misuse campaigns.

As communications professionals, we must be nimble, efficient, and constantly innovating to create and refine our outreach strategies. I look forward to following this growing trend as we continue to realize the power of Twitter’s collective voice—even all the content ‘junk food’ that inspires more than the occasional eye roll on my part. Maybe I’ll have more tolerance for it now!

Walking the Fine Line – Fear and Health Communications

Jun 05

Ronald Klain speaking at the Health Conference. (Photo Credit: 1776)

Ronald Klain speaking at the Health Conference. (Photo Credit: 1776)

I had the opportunity to recently attend the Health Conference at 1776’s Challenge Festival. The first part of my day was spent immersed in panel discussions that featured thought leaders whose end goal is to create a healthier world. The second part of my day was spent sitting on the edge of my seat while 20 health-focused start-ups from around the globe pitched their companies to the panel of judges.

Despite the excitement that pumped through me during the Shark Tank-esque portion of the event, my mind would continuously drift back to the “fireside chat” given by Ronald Klain, aka the “Ebola Czar,” whose role is was to keep the bureaucratic gears turning to efficiently and effectively foster solutions to the already raging epidemic.

Throughout his talk, he often underscored the importance of communications in helping control the outbreak. He emphasized how effective communication–both internal and external–helped provide a rapid response, build medical infrastructure, coordinate across government agencies, and manage public fear.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of how communications acts as both a mediator and a (often, unintentional) propagator of fear.

Deborah Kotz effectively summarized this phenomenon in the context of the Ebola crisis in an article she authored for the Boston Globe, “An estimated 36,000 Americans are expected to die of the flu this year, but, if history is any indication, the majority of us will skip the recommended yearly vaccine. We’d likely, however, be lining up around the block to get an Ebola immunization if one was available — even though only one person has died of the infection in this country so far.”

In health communication, we often have to walk the fine line between sharing critical information without sparking irrational concerns. This high-wire act is even more important in the age of social media where misinformation can spread like wildfire. Our challenge of health communicators is to 1) be proactive without inadvertently adding fuel to the fire and 2) As Mr. Klain explained, acknowledge to the public that their fear is normal to an extent, while providing information to mitigate the fears to a realistic level. Communications as a mediator of fear, however, often comes after the fire is already burning bright.

Mr. Klain’s talk affirmed the importance of thinking strategically before conveying health and risk messages to the public. Know your audience, know how to reach them, and perhaps most importantly know how to shift your tone to avoid creating a culture a fear.

New career goal? Become an expert tight rope walker – one that can walk the line between effective behavior change communications without instilling irrational fear in those I am trying to reach (à la homemade hazmat suit).

Environment as a Behavior Shaping Tool

May 26

Our office is moving this summer. We’re not moving far, just a few floors away in our current building. But we are moving big, in that we are transitioning to an “open” floor plan – no offices, no partitions between workstations and (gasp) precious little filing space. My thoughts on the matter fluctuate from excited to terrified within every hour of every day.

To be sure, this change will require me to work very differently from the way I have grown accustomed to working. And, it has gotten me thinking a lot about the influence that our physical environment has on our behaviors.

Admittedly, this is not a new concept. Studies have shown that placing healthy food choices in more prominent, easier-to-access locations increases the consumption of those foods over less healthy alternatives. We have also seen that the explosion of bike shares and protected bike lanes in major cities has motivated more people to use their own power to get around (Washington, DC and New York have doubled biking rates in 4 years).

But, in these examples, personal choice is still there. If I really want a brownie instead of fresh fruit, I can get one with a little extra effort (and guilt). If I don’t want to ride my bike through the city streets, I can walk or take the Metro, or a taxi, or a bus, or my car.

In the case of our office move, however, I don’t have many choices. I can’t choose to keep an office when no offices exist. I can’t choose to keep my hard copy files when no storage space exists. I can’t chose to host meetings or conference calls at my table for convenience because it will disturb those around me. I can choose, however, to embrace this change as a fresh start, a new way to work, an exciting new adventure, and an opportunity to get to know my colleagues even better.

So, with limited choices, it seems that attitudes become even more important. As I consider how I will need to behave differently in our new office environment, my attitudes towards those new behaviors will likely influence them as much as our office set-up will. And, my attitudes will be influenced by social norms, outcome expectations and a whole host of other behavior-shaping influences.

For me, this reinforces the importance of taking a holistic look at every behavior change challenge – and the utility of considering how multiple influences play a role. Yes, our new office environment will cause me to behave differently. But for me to truly embrace those new behaviors and maintain them over time, I’ve also got to believe that those actions will have a tangible benefit (e.g., more collaboration, less paper clutter), that my colleagues will support me, and that I actually can work differently after all these years. Messages, communications initiatives and training workshops related to our move should take these factors into consideration, and, fortunately, most have done so thus far.

Somewhat ironically, planning ahead to working in a “one size desk fits all” office environment has renewed my belief that there is never a “one size fits all” approach to motivating behavior change.

Words of encouragement and open space work tips are most welcome!