Death to the Campaign!

When I started this Your Audience is a Lie thing, I was hoping to parlay it into a nice little series. Unfortunately, before I could finish it with my bold prediction of what your jobs as government communicators will look like in a few years, one of the smartest and most dedicated people I know in health communications beat me to the punch. Alex Bornkessel, who runs an amazing MS charity with her family, called for death to the campaign this past weekend and I couldn’t agree more.

This idea that campaign-focused communications actively works against our goals of affecting real change (whether it be health-focused, preparedness-focused, or some other goal) in two different ways. First, it assumes that our audience is there, available, placid and interested, during the time we decide they should hear our messages. If they are otherwise ready to lose weight, or set up a communications plan, or change the batteries in their smoke detectors, except for some family crisis that happens during our predefined “campaign time,” then they don’t get the message that they need to change their behavior. (This is a HUGE reason I despise days, weeks and months that celebrate or raise awareness for something; what, tuberculosis doesn’t matter the other 364 days of the year?)

The other reason only communicating through campaigns is harmful is, in my estimation, infinitely worse. Say your timing works out and you get lucky and actually find someone who was patiently waiting for your message. Not only that, but the message is specifically tailored to the group she self-identifies with (because you’re still marketing to audiences and not everyone), and she takes action on it. She’s moved from Contemplation to Preparation based solely on your messaging. Congratulations! But, what happens when you end your campaign? Specifically, what happens to this wonderful person that you’ve prepped to be ready to move forward and actually change her behavior? Does she not move to the Action stage? Does she resent your messaging for leaving her hanging, alone? Is she willing to wait another year for you to become interested in her problem again? Will she even listen next time?

Alex puts the problem into specific relief here, and even offers the solution we’ve been talking about:

Traditional mass media models that follow TV PSAs, direct mail, radio announcements and the like allow us to safely distance ourselves from the nitty-gritty hard work of transforming our world. It puts us a hands distance from actually interacting with and serving our people. It’s time to roll up our sleeves.

Our work is no longer about building a one-and-done campaign, but about creating shared experiences and building movements. To build bridges, we have to walk side-by-side with those we want to not only reach, but truly engage.

Her post is called Shifting from Campaign to Cause, which is sublime in it’s understanding of the problem. If we really want to affect change, we have to believe that our message is good enough for everyone, whenever they are ready to hear it, and understand that they’ll have questions and concerns and complaints and praise, and that it’s part of our job to find those comments and questions important and valid and respond to them.

Honestly, if we’re not invested enough in our work to do that, why are we even messaging?


9 thoughts on “Death to the Campaign!

  1. Very insightful as always. Campaigns, audiences, even marketing; they all send us back to an era of non-participatory communications … we’re past that now. Engagement is dynamic, continual and self-fulfilling if content is shared and even arrived upon mutually … and not simply delivered TO an “audience” … Clay Shirky’s thought on that:

  2. Thanks so much for stopping by, Patrice. I’m in complete agreement, a PIO’s job will change more in the next two years than it has in the last twenty-five. Scary times! Thanks for the link, too!

  3. Great piece and I agree. I find it tough to get through to those who really control messaging to move from awareness to behavior change to reinforcement and engagement. The excuse I am always given is time and money. Maybe we should trim down all those initiatives where we think we’re saving the world by taking on 20 different issues and focus on a handful where we can actually make a difference. Of course, I am reminded that the “causes” lobby will definitely not be happy. Just one look at the Health Observences Calendar at and I feel that any local health department may get more than an ear-full if they’re ignored.

    1. I concur. I fully agree with everything Jim and Alex have said on this issue, the biggest hurdle is turning clients away from the campaign model. This is no easy task as many of us are still trying to turn them away from the counts method of digital media measurement. It will likely take a few case studies before clients see the value in moving away from the campaign. In the mean time, how do we get those first few case studies?

      1. This is a great opportunity for government agencies–who are less tied to product delivery and the vagaries of client-to-client funding streams–to make a big splash. We’ve got to do this messaging, and aside from grant-funded projects, we’ll be here conducting this messaging for a while. The biggest stumbling block, like Reed said, is political fallout.

        Oh, what I wouldn’t give for a communications job. =P

  4. Great comment, Reed, I really appreciate it. That’s really the first big stumbling block to this way of thinking. I think one big part of the change I’d like to see is the understanding that government agencies, especially local public health, can no longer do everything. Hell, we can’t even do what we used to do poorly. With cuts in funding and the graying of the public health workforce, we can either choose to support those causes through useless lip service, or focus our time and energy on those areas where we can make a difference.

    I’m a firm believer in two things that will color the future of public health. First, austerity will continue. We will long for those days when money existed for our programs (what’s that saying: I wish I was as skinny as I was when I thought I was fat). Second, evidence-based work and metrics will dominate the work that we do, especially in communications. I’m participating in a discussion at the NPHIC Symposium next month on creating metrics for risk communication. Health and risk communicators will be increasingly squeezed between those two things and will be forced to focus on where they can make a difference. The causes lobby will, unfortunately, have to make do.

    I’m a huge fan of that old curse, “May you live in interesting times.” We, sir, live in very interesting times.

    Thanks again for stopping by, and I really value your input!

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