One of the very best conferences in the land started yesterday. And it started off with a bang. In one of the very first pre-conference workshops, Dr. Cynthia Baur of the CDC (she’s one of the world’s preeminent thinkers AND doers in the field of health literacy), said the quote above.
Now, I’ve said just this for a long time: there is no general public. The general public has voluntarily carved themselves up into tiny little fractions of groups, each self-identified by some demographic that can change over time, isn’t necessarily exclusive from other demographic identifications and allows people to adopt multiple identifications all at once.
Think about me and all of my unique interests as an example. I’m interested in public health, emergency management, horror movies, punk rock, Philly happenings, social media, running, tattoos and video games. Name me one other person you know that does all of those things (no, really, I want to meet them). Outside of work duties, I don’t follow the national or local news at all. Am I in the general public? What about you? What interests do you use to define yourself?
That information you’re putting out? The one written for the “general public?” Does it fit into my interest spectrum? Probably not. And it probably doesn’t fit into lots of other interest spectrums, either. But why do we keep writing for the “general public”?
Like most things, there’s a rational reason why we started messaging this way. It has to do with the history of our information dissemination pathways. Government communication to the wide public really took off as mass media was reaching the height of it’s popularity and utility. If you wanted to talk to the public in any widespread fashion, you could knock on doors, or send a release to the mass media. And the media made no bones that they were the way to reach everyone. There’s no need to develop specific messages when you’re just talking into a great big, fat pipe.
Things have changed a bit, though, if you haven’t noticed. People have diversified where they get their news from:
People have found that big, fat pipe no longer satisfies their need for relevant information. And they’ve since moved on to targeted, specific, interesting information and news. And yet, we still write like the mass media is the only way we can get information out. The general public only existed when there was one way to get information. With a plethora of ways to get information today the punk rock, zombie movie fan, public health professional set has chosen to ignore your messages designed to appeal to everyone from eighteen-year-olds, grandparents and mothers of young children.
So let’s bow our heads for a minute and put this out-of-date idea to rest, finally.