News: Army Medicine Communication Blockers: Debunking the myths in healthcare messaging
Story by Valecia Dunbar
SAN ANTONIO - Each of us sends and receives thousands of pieces of information every day, whether it's through conversations, briefings, the media, food labels, or advertisements. The average American consumes approximately 100,500 words and 34 gigabytes of information (almost 12 hours) each day according to the Global Information Industry Center (2009). Information is unavoidable, yet effective communication can still be difficult to execute due to misconceptions, misinterpretation, and mismanagement of information processes.
This article addresses three communication myths to help establish a common operating picture throughout the enterprise; update and advance Army Medicine communication processes; and better align Army Medicine communication practices with existing policy and guidance. The Office of the Secretary of Defense's (OSD) Roadmap for Strategic Communication (2006) calls for communication to be weaved into everything we do: "DOD must establish a culture that recognizes the value of communication and integrates communication considerations into policy development, operational planning, execution and assessment."
GAO also notes that "DOD is seeking to approach strategic communication as a process that leaders, planners and operators should follow to integrate audience and stakeholder perceptions into policymaking, planning, and operations at every level" (GAO strategic communication review, 2012).
Despite overwhelming guidance and academic research supporting the integration and execution of communication at all levels, communication is too often delegated to public affairs staff at the end of a project, and executed as a one-time event. The critical nature of current communication environments dictate that Army Medicine update our command culture:
Myth # 1: Communication is complete when a press release is distributed, information is posted online, etc.
Fact: Although messages and information are vital elements of any communication effort, distributing a fact sheet, communication plan, or press release does not correlate to effective communication. The communication process should involve deliberate efforts to define goals and objectives; assess audience needs, expectations, knowledge, etc.; identify potential communication risks and/or gaps; deliver information (through both information channels and in person); and assess effectiveness.
Communication must involve messages and products, but actions, behaviors, and decision-making processes also contribute to the full picture of Army Medicine communication: "Communication is not merely a matter of what is said; it is also, perhaps primarily, a matter of what is done …" (U.S. Joint Forces Command strategic communication handbook 2010, pg. P-1).
Sustaining an information-centric communication approach only reinforces habitual thinking about communication, and could eventually inhibit communication success in the midst of today's fast-paced and rapidly changing communication environment. Instead, communication should be viewed as a cyclical process where time and resources are dedicated to define agreed upon objectives; identify audiences and characterize audience attributes (e.g., knowledge levels, information sources, attitudes, perceptions); and identify potential barriers to then improve communication planning and execution.
One significant action to improve communication success is to remove social media prohibitions. The removal of these barriers in the midst of a communication revolution enables an environment of trust and credibility by allowing people to interactively engage in a robust communication process. Once disseminated, communication outcomes should then be assessed internally and externally to identify best practices and areas for improvement to apply to future communication initiatives.
The Performance Triad team has successfully executed a cyclical communication process by actively soliciting and integrating key audience feedback into subsequent messages and products. Performance Triad communication materials, which provide a balance between what's important to both experts and audiences, are now being used Army-wide to further embed the concept of health into the Army's DNA.
Myth #2: The communication mission is the sole responsibility of public affairs officers/communication SMEs.
Fact: It will take the "whole village" to achieve communication success, particularly in the current environment of budget constraints, uncertainties, consolidations, and transformation. Command communication staff and subject matter experts should be equal partners in jointly shaping the communication landscape.
Communication staff is responsible for shaping, guiding, and facilitating information delivery (Tell the Army Medicine Story); advising commanders on strategic and operational communications matters; developing clear and actionable strategies to synchronize communication throughout the command; characterizing the media environment; and helping to increase health awareness.
Subject matter experts are responsible for providing message content; integrating communication factors into the military decision-making process (MDMP); identifying relevant communication venues to communicate information/messages; and helping to shape team understanding of audience perception and attitudes to improve message resonance. In reality, every MEDCOM staff member has a communication role by respectfully interacting with co-workers, patients, and visitors; communicating a positive first impression of Army Medicine; and by cascading Army Medicine messages to others. As Army Medicine continues to lead the Army toward a System for Health, communication can and should be a shared responsibility, the thread that connects people, tasks, and mission.
Myth #3: Topics and messages should be communicated as standalone items one at a time.
Fact: Certainly, all Army and Army surgeon general (TSG) priorities deserve dedicated focus and attention to ensure messaging and products are relevant and accurate. But focusing on only one project at a time results in missed opportunities to demonstrate project interconnectedness and the supporting relationships to priority missions. For example, when briefing on planned facility consolidations, consider communicating about Army Medicine initiatives that promote better health while decreasing the need for medical care (e.g., The Performance Triad, Army Wellness Centers, Patient-Centered Medical Homes).
When talking about TSG's top priorities (Combat Casualty Care, Readiness and Health of the Force, Ready and Deployable Medical Force, Health of Families and Retirees), consider explaining how Army Medicine experts are supporting the Soldier 2020 campaign to match the right Soldier to the right job (e.g., injury prevention, gender integration study). When engaging with a patient about recent test results, consider sharing Performance Triad messages about the importance of good nutrition and sleep habits, and their impact on overall health.
It's time to move MEDCOM communication processes into the 21st century to accommodate the ever-expanding and interactive nature of today's human interactions. Communicating the right message to the right audience at the right time by the right messenger through the right mechanism requires a collaborative communication approach. Strengthening the equal partnership between subject matter and communication experts will help lay the foundation for communication success, and ultimately better support execution of the Army Medicine 2020 Campaign objectives.