Communication Strategies - California Media Campaigns Work for Healthy Infants

November-December 1997

BY: RHODA WEISS

Ms. Weiss is a Santa Monica, CA-based healthcare consultant.

Over the past 18 months, the California Department of Health Services has created two new healthcare media campaigns to improve prenatal care and raise infant immunization rates. The result of collaboration between marketing and communications professionals and supportive government officials, these two campaigns are changing health outcomes in the state.

A Dash of Salt-N-Pepa
The BabyCal prenatal care campaign's use of rap music stars Salt-N-Pepa to reach low-income expectant mothers throughout the state, particularly African-American women and women of other ethnic groups, debuted in April 1996. The BabyCal Perinatal Outreach Program had reduced statewide infant mortality by 15 percent over the previous five years, but had not had a major impact in the African-American community. Then BabyCal's former public relations team leader Greg Waskul, at the time a senior managing director at the public relations firm of Hill and Knowlton, created "Every Baby Is a Star," a press event designed to reach young African-American expectant mothers. California Secretary of Health and Welfare Sandra Smoley, RN, and Director of the Department of Health Services Kim Belshe approved Waskul's idea in three days. For the event, Waskul's public relations team created a Salt-N-Pepa poster and public service announcements with a hip-hop feel. They also set up a satellite tour for the stars and Smoley and held the press event on a Hollywood sound stage. More than 200 media hits followed the event.

The two Salt-N-Pepa PSAs have been phenomenally successful, receiving more air time in California over the past 18 months than any other PSA. They have also aired nationally. The music stars appeal directly to the targeted audience, telling them, "Don't drink, don't smoke, and don't do drugs." More than 100,000 pregnant women have called the ad's toll-free number for help with prenatal care issues.

"Every dollar spent on prenatal care saves more than three dollars in medical expenses for unhealthy babies, which is why this outreach program is so important," said Smoley. "The program is now reaching a huge number of California women." California now has the lowest infant death rate among the 10 largest states. In fact, California's infant mortality rate declined across the board in 1996, highlighted by a drop of more than 10 percent in the African-American community. This represented the largest one-year decline in African-American infant mortality in the history of the state.

"The Salt-N-Pepa solution showed that teaming with spokespeople who related directly to the target audience could be a highly effective tactic for changing behavior in the community," Waskul said.

Building Better Immunization Rates
California has recently launched another ambitious campaign to increase infant immunization rates. Although immunization rates in California have risen over the past four years, they still rank 45th among the 50 states. A major reason for the low rates is that more than two-thirds of mothers do not understand the immunization schedule. The new Waskul-created campaign is Blocks of Life. Its logo features building blocks with the "2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 12 months and 15 months" immunization dates emblazoned on them, stacked in a pattern specifically designed to be easy to remember. Every major branch of the California Department of Health Services participated on the Blocks for Life team, as well as the California Healthcare Association, the California Medical Association, and the California Association of Health Plans. The Blocks for Life materials include posters, magnets, t-shirts, immunization innovation awards, and a parent's promise certificate, to be given to new parents while their baby is still in the hospital. Materials are produced in both English and Spanish, to reach nearly 90 percent of the state's parents of infants. A popular television PSA was also done in both languages.

The immunization campaign was formally launched in April 1997 at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. Guests of honor were the Shier quintuplets, who were born in early 1996 at Long Beach Memorial and who were about to receive their 15-month inoculations.

Community organizations and county health departments throughout the state were eager to add Blocks of Life items to their immunization materials. In the months since April, thousands of pieces with the new logo have been distributed to hospitals, doctors' offices, and clinics. People from more than 30 other states are interested in adapting the campaign for their areas.

The BabyCal and Blocks of Life communications programs position California to give babies and infants the best possible start in life.

 

Copyright © 1997 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
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