Lessons Learned from the “This is Public Health” Public Awareness Campaign: Attracting Prospective Students

The public health field had a problem some academic disciplines understand all too well: prospective students didn’t fully understand what public health workers do. So, in 2008, the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) started the “This is Public Health” (TIPH) campaign to help raise awareness of the field.

Tracie Seward, ASPPH’s manager of student services, explained the campaign originated as way to help prospective students understand how public health ties into many different fields. “We wanted a way to show that public health is everywhere — you can be a dentist and still be involved in public health!”  Seward said.

The campaign started with a simple parallelogram sticker that stated, “This is public health.” Ten years later, it includes a website, newsletter, multiple social media channels and events. An annual road show during National Public Health Week engages students of all ages in activities that teach them about public health. ASPPH also has a robust social media program supporting the campaign. “We hold Twitter chats, engage current public health students as ambassadors, present to K-12 students and do social media take-overs,” said Seward.

Emily Gordon joined ASPPH as its Student Services Coordinator in 2017; she manages all of the communications to prospective students, including a monthly newsletter for applicants through SOPHAS [the Centralized Application Service (CAS™) for schools and programs of public health] and the TIPH campaign. “We have fun with this brand since it allows us to branch out from the ‘this is when you start an application, this is how you submit it’ message to provide more context about what those in our profession do,” Gordon said.

Gordon and Seward offer the following suggestions of tactics for a successful public awareness campaign based on their experience with TIPH.

1. Find a way to drive the public’s interest in your issue.

ASPPH used the TIPH campaign as an umbrella to showcase how an interest in health care can align with public health and to demonstrate the diversity of the field. “It’s been a gold mine,” said Seward. “When people know what public health is, it helps everyone involved with our organization.”

To help people understand what public health looks like, ASPPH began affixing their “This is public health” stickers to public objects related to air and water quality, hygiene, nutrition and other messages about community wellness. The stickers drew attention to how people’s individual actions, such as picking up pet waste or washing their hands, could have a larger impact on the community. The stickers also promoted a link to thisispublichealth.org, where people could learn more.

“We started off providing information to a broad audience to introduce the field, then honed in to help provide options for prospective students to explore education,” Seward explained.

2. Start small and evolve.

While the campaign began with simple stickers and a website, it gradually expanded to include social media, adding a Facebook page in 2009, Instagram in 2013 and Twitter and Snapchat in March 2017. Beyond simply adding new channels, ASPPH has focused on tapping into each channel’s unique format to drive engagement. “We recently started doing Twitter chats,” Gordon said. “They’re slowly growing and gaining more diverse perspectives.”

The association hosts approximately a dozen graduate school fairs each year, drawing more than 2,000 prospective students. In addition, ASPPH’s four virtual college fairs annually attract more than 6,500 registrants interested in learning about various public health degree programs. To engage students earlier in the pipeline, ASPPH added a road show in 2016, visiting a different state during National Public Health Week each year. “We guide students of all ages through a variety of activities to help them understand public health,” Seward explained. “You’ve got to meet students where they are,” she said, “whether that’s through social media, at virtual events or in person.”

3. Be inclusive.

To help showcase the diversity of public health, ASPPH has recruited several graduate students to serve as ambassadors. “They talk about their experiences and answer questions,” Gordon said. For example, Allante Moon, a second-year Health Behavior Health Education MPH student at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, shared information about her practicum project on Instagram. Through the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training Program (MHIRT), she spent three months in Trinidad and Tobago conducting a pilot study on chronic oil spill exposure and its health effects as well as understanding how Trinidadians are able to cope with oil pollution.

The ambassadors include students in a variety of academic programs: MPH, an MPH/MBA combination and a Ph.D. in biostatistics. They come from schools all over the country and represent a variety of different research interests ranging from infectious disease and mental health to health policy and minority health.

Raising awareness and engagement

Ultimately, a well-conceived and executed public awareness campaign can strengthen the pipeline for many academic disciplines. Keep the tactics above in mind as you plan your campaign and you’ll be well on your way to building an engaged pool of future students.