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Multiple messages provide best method for reinforcing positive health practices

BOONE—What convinced you to get a flu shot this season, or engage in other healthy behaviors?

Assistant Professor Jennifer Gray from Appalachian State University’s Department of Communication studies health communication, particularly persuasive health messaging and health behavior change, health presentations in the media and health education.

This year’s flu season – one of the worst in recent memory – provides an excellent case study of health messages and behavior change.

“Health behaviors are so complex,” Gray said. “With the flu you can focus a message on any number of behaviors. It could be washing your hands, getting the vaccine, covering your mouth when you cough, or not going to work if you are sick. Some messages will focus on all of those things, while some will focus on one.”

As is the case with any marketing, the better you know your audience the better the chance your advertising campaign or public service messages will be effective.

“It’s important to understand the audience being targeted as well so that the appropriate communication channel is used,” Gray said. For instance, messages for the elderly might be included in printed materials sent by mail or broadcast as local public service announcements. Twitter and Facebook, however, might be more appropriate for a younger audience.

“You have to do research with the target audience before you began a health messaging campaign to know what would be effective,” Gray said.

Gray has a Ph.D. in communication with a specialization in health communication from the University of Kentucky. She also has worked in public relations in medical settings.

Her dissertation focused on the communication messages that worked best to convince people to exercise.

While the desire to remain healthy may be a motivating factor in some people’s decision to get a flu vaccine, “sometimes it’s fear promoted by the media,” Gray said. Telling a story about a person’s piece of mind after getting a flu shot, or messages that are supportive may work better for others.

“Some health messages aren’t tailored to a specific audience,” Gray said, “and aren’t going to resonate with anyone when you try to capture everyone. Tailored messages that are specific to an individual are going to be more effective.” Messages can be matched to an individual through computer technology, such as the programs online retailers or movie rental businesses use to suggest product choices to the customer, Gray explained.

The credibility of a health message also is important.

“Social media has made things very interesting in terms of source and credibility – things we talk about in messages and communication,” Gray said. “Credibility changes, sometimes for the worse. People can post anything (on Facebook) and sometimes people will take it as credible because it’s posted by someone they know.”

Since tailoring messages to the audience might not always be an option, the mass messaging approach can work over time, Gray said.

“Mass messages have a lot of advantages in that they can reach a lot of people, but mass messages may not affect everyone,” she said. “But even if you don’t process it deeply, if you see it enough times you are going to remember it. Changing health behavior is very difficult to begin with. Preventing (poor) behavior is easier.”