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Crafting Richer Messages: Moral Foundations Theory and Communication Strategies for Public Health

posted on Mon, Aug 14 2017 11:58 am by Colleen Healy and Gene Matthews

Look deeper and go local.

This was the central message of a recent workshop, “Crafting Richer Messages for Public Health Leadership,” presented July 20, 2017, at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO’s) Senior Deputies and Legislative Liaisons Annual Meeting. The workshop was conducted by attorneys from the Network for Public Health Law - along with public health leaders from the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple Law School, the Wake County Human Services Public Health Division in North Carolina, and Faith and Health Ministries at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina.

The training was the latest in an evolving series of presentations delivered and articles published over the last few years aimed at helping public health practitioners communicate public health issues to a broader audience. Effective messaging of public health issues and solutions is essential to public health practice and especially to developing public health laws and policies in a polarized political environment. Indeed, as the presenters explain in their recent article, Crafting Richer Public Health Messages for A Turbulent Political Environment, successful communication is a crucial element in the Five Essential Public Health Law Services framework—a transdisciplinary model designed to facilitate the timely conception, implementation, and diffusion of public health legal interventions. In particular, effective messaging is necessary to designing achievable legal solutions, garnering community and political support, and ensuring successful implementation of legal solutions. Click here for more on the Five Essential Public Health Law Services framework.

A number of strategies presented in the workshop were grounded in Moral Foundations Theory, expounded by Jonathan Haidt in his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. Moral Foundations Theory offers insights into moral psychology and decision-making that are helpful for understanding how value judgments are made. For example, one key lesson is that contrary to our self-perceptions, people tend to arrive at moral judgments primarily through intuition rather than reason; thus, it is more effective to speak to a person’s intuitions (their moral values) rather than to their reason (by presenting facts and statistics).

Moral Foundations Theory also offers insight into six foundational intuitive moral values thought to underlie all human decision-making regardless of cultural and geographic boundaries. These values are: (1) care, (2) liberty, (3) fairness, (4) loyalty, (5) authority, and (6) sanctity. Though present to varying degrees in all of us, Haidt explains that American liberals and conservatives possess and rely upon these values in fundamentally different ways: while American liberals utilize the first three values (care, liberty, and fairness) with very little concern for the latter three, American conservatives draw from all six values in approximately equal proportions.

The presenters explained that for decades, public health issues have been communicated using the three “liberal-favored” values almost exclusively. Because these messages often fail to resonate with conservative audiences, opportunities to improve public health law and policy may be missed. By crafting richer messages that embrace all six moral concerns, public health practitioners may find that they can engage a broader base of support and develop new community partnerships.

Applying Moral Foundations Theory, the presenters offered three examples of how public health issues have been effectively communicated across party lines in the politically divided state of North Carolina. Based on these examples and a wealth of experience, they advised participants to look deeper into distressed communities to understand the community’s values, needs, and complexity, and to focus locally to design solutions alongside diverse coalitions that may include faith networks, law enforcement, and other (sometimes unexpected) stakeholders. Participants then practiced applying Moral Foundations Theory to reframe issues of importance in their state, using a tool provided by presenters for this purpose. Click here to review the workshop handout that includes this tool.

The presenters were very impressed by the energy with which the ASTHO participants engaged in this “hands on” practice exercise, which could indicate the pent-up desire by state and local public health practitioners to try doing something different and meaningful in this current environment.

To learn more about Moral Foundations Theory and how it may be applied to craft richer public health messages, you may wish to review the presenters’ first article on this topic, Advocacy for Leaders: Crafting Richer Stories for Public Health, as well as their most recent article, Crafting Richer Public Health Messages for A Turbulent Political Environment noted above. In addition, you may wish to review presentation slides from the July 20 workshop, available here. If you have questions or would like to learn more, contact Gene Matthews or Colleen Healy for more information.

Network attorneys are available to answer questions on this and other public health topics at no cost to you, and can assist you in using law to advance your public health initiatives. Visit the Network’s website for a list of Network attorneys in your area.

This post was developed by Gene Matthews, Director, Network for Public Health Law – Southeastern Region Office and Colleen Healy, Staff Attorney, Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region Office. The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this post does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.

Support for the Network is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, RWJF.

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