Media and PR alarm about diabetes weakens advocacy and awareness
The month of November is recognized as Diabetes Awareness month, and today, November 14th, has been named World Diabetes Day by the International Federation for Diabetes and the WHO. Public health authorities, non-profits, communications professionals and journalists use this time and the weeks leading up to it to organize, focus, and amplify messages about the state of diabetes, prevention and the efforts being made to address the epidemic. More often than not, however, negative and over-simplified messaging outweighs positive messages, diluting the impact of potentially powerful diabetes health communications.
Prevailing rhetoric around the epidemic is wrought with simplistic, sometimes forceful language, graphic imagery, and what many would consider to be ‘sobering figures’ to describe the risks associated with the disease. Media outlets casually use terms such as “ticking time-bomb” and “silent killer” to allude to diabetes in their stories. Press offices and media frequently peddle out variations of the same terrifying statistics and morbid examples of injury to illustrate the potentially devastating effects of unchecked Diabetes.
While the realities of unmanaged diabetes are to be reckoned with, the imbalanced portrayal of diabetes propagates varying levels of fear, suspicion, and eventually, indifference. Often, this type of messaging rests on an intended shock-factor that aims to scare people into submitting to healthier lifestyles. Fear appeals, however, have been proven to be ineffective by a number of studies. These tell us that fear-induced activism is ineffective at worst, and unsustainable at best.
Additionally, the use of nondescript terms such as “diabetic” and “sufferers” to refer to people with diabetes identifies those people by their condition before their personality, further undermining their agency and independence. It fuels misunderstandings and misgivings about our ability to live healthily and happily with diabetes – something millions of people do every day – myself included. Compounded by a lack of understanding of the intricacies of the condition and the nuances of its various types, this approach creates a standard perception of PWD that does not validate each person’s individual trials and experiences in managing the condition.
Rather than seeing the potential for progress and improvement, people are discouraged by increasingly negative messages about the current state of diabetes. In a region that is forecasted to experience a 263 percent increase in the incidence of diabetes by 2030 (Dr. Brent Egan, consultant endocrinologist in the US) it is difficult, but important, to highlight the potential for positive change.
There are four focus areas for us to consider when writing about, discussing or planning campaigns for diabetes awareness:
People don’t respond as well to threats and aggressive counsel as they do to positive reinforcement. Even in the direst of situations, hope has seen people through misery and severe challenges. Messages that emphasize hope and the possibility of positive outcomes are more likely to result in listeners adopting desired behaviors. Take advantage of people’s inclination to respond to positive and inspiring messages to encourage real change.
Humanize your communications
Both your audience and the subject of your communications – people with diabetes – are humans. It makes sense, then, that the most effective way in which to talk about diabetes is by talking about the human experience of the condition and its impact on real people. Statistics and symptoms may ring alarms with readers, but authentic human experiences go miles further in building empathy and a desire to be part of the solution.
Empathy begins with understanding, and understanding begins with education. Avoid half-truths, click-baity headlines and dramatic language about the threat of diabetes. Clarify misunderstandings by differentiating between diabetes types. Use real insights balanced by demonstrable improvements in diabetes health over time to communicate the importance of awareness. Shape messages so that they are informative and enlightening, offering an inside look at how diabetes impacts PWD differently.
Call to action
The importance of calls to action in health communications cannot be understated. Every message, regardless of channel or platform, should support an overarching call to action to drive the desired impact, enabling you to work in partnership with your audience toward a common goal. Calls to action not only keep your audience engaged, but can help you measure the impact of your campaign provided you propose an action that can be tracked and measured. In diabetes communications, calls to action can be simple and powerful, such as encouraging people to get a free check-up at a public health fair.
Unless we curate authentic, positive messages around diabetes, the gap between understanding and reality will continue to widen, remaining open to misconceptions and misinformation. It is our responsibility as media and PR professionals, healthy-living advocates and diabetes awareness activists to use language and information in a way that inspires and educates listeners while empowering people with diabetes.