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Global Public Health Messages Should Tell Stories to Go Viral, Study Says

Global public health agencies such as the CDC should use storytelling techniques to get audiences to share key public health messages, according to a UT health communication scholar. 

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AUSTIN, Texas — Global public health agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) should use narrative message design — or storytelling techniques — to get audiences to share key public health messages interpersonally and through social media, according to a study from The University of Texas at Austin.

World Heart Day Infographic

A global health infographic shared on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Facebook page. Graphic courtesy of CDC

In the study published in the journal Communication Research, Joshua Barbour, assistant professor of Communication Studies and affiliated faculty member in the Moody College of Communication Center for Health Communication, found that audiences who receive narrative messages reported that they were more likely to “like” information about public health on Facebook, post about it and tweet about it.

The study, “Telling Global Public Health Stories: Narrative Message Design for Issues Management,” defines a narrative as having a beginning, middle and end; vivid imagery; and a cast of characters with whom connections can be formed.

“Promoting global public health is a practical and moral necessity for the United States government,” Barbour said. “Using narrative messages to make the case for global public health efforts in times of quiet can build a groundwork of reputation and relationships for times of crisis.”

Barbour, along with Marissa Doshi of Hope College and Leandra Hernández of National University, conducted an experiment that compared narrative and expository — or descriptive — messages about a CDC global health initiative and measured perceptions of agency reputation, support for a global public health mission, and intentions to share information.

They found that narrative messages influenced the likelihood that audiences would share messages, and that they would not erode support or reputation of the agency. Researchers also found that participants perceived narrative messages as more easily understood and less likely to result in information overload.

This study adds to a growing body of research that shows the importance of storytelling in communicating public health information. These findings can benefit global public health agencies as they search for the best way to make complex health and scientific information accessible to a wide variety of audiences.

“The importance of storytelling will not be news to most communication professionals, but public health professionals worry that telling stories would make them seem less credible as scientists,” Barbour said. “Narratives spread the word without degrading agency reputation, and they can change minds if they are crafted correctly.”