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Q&A with Amelia Burke-Garcia, program area director of digital strategy and outreach at NORC at the University of Chicago

Oct 7, 2021

Amelia Burke-Garcia, Ph.D., is a program area director of digital strategy and outreach in the public health department at NORC at the University of Chicago. NORC led the development of How Right Now/Que Hacer Ahora, a communications campaign designed to promote and strengthen the emotional well-being and resiliency of people affected by COVID-19–related stress, grief and loss.

Interact for Health: How did you conceive the How Right Now campaign?

Burke-Garcia: As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed—and Americans have had to socially distance, struggled financially and been continuously exposed to distressing information about the pandemic—reports of mental and behavioral health concerns have increased.

In response, the CDC Foundation, in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, early on contracted with NORC at the University of Chicago and our partners Burness Communications and TMN Corp. to develop a national research-based, culturally-responsive communications campaign. It was aimed at addressing the mental health and emotional well-being needs of four audiences: adults ages 65 and older and their caregivers, adults with pre-existing physical and mental health conditions, adults experiencing violence and adults experiencing economic distress. These were identified early on as being at-risk for disproportionate effects of the pandemic. Within each of these, there is a focus on racial and ethnic, and sexual orientation and gender identity minority groups.

To inform the development of the campaign, rapid but robust formative research was conducted. This research explored audiences’ urgent mental/behavioral health issues, feelings about social distancing/reopening, definitions of resilience, mental health information needs and available mental health resources or support, and trusted information sources.

What resulted from our research was How Right Now, or Que Hacer Ahora in Spanish, a comprehensive communications campaign to reach high-risk populations who are facing adverse mental health challenges due to COVID-19.

Interact for Health: How did you work with your many partner organizations during the campaign?

Burke-Garcia: To reach the communities it seeks to serve, the campaign team has leveraged trusted organizational partners and individual champions to be the voices through which the campaign’s messages and materials have been disseminated. These partners have been part of the campaign in a variety of capacities. They were part of the formative research and a main channel for dissemination. Partner activities included digital and social media posts, e-newsletter dissemination, webinars and virtual town halls, virtual conference presentations, text messaging and in-store television rotations. Since its launch on Aug. 5, 2020, the campaign has worked together with more than 80 partners and has disseminated evidence-based messaging and materials to audiences in need of mental health resources throughout the pandemic.

Interact for Health: How Right Now used social media influencers to share health messaging. Can you share any lessons learned from this practice that might be applicable to other health promotion campaigns?

Burke-Garcia: The campaign worked with 61 influencers to help promote messages and materials. The influencers were provided with digital messages that were often adapted so they could include a personal story. Working with influencers – and allowing them to personalize the campaign messages with their own experiences and stories – worked well to increase the reach of and engagement with the campaign among its key audiences. Our influencers were particularly persuasive with communities of color, which have experienced disproportionate mental health impacts during the pandemic.

Interact for Health: How Right Now uses social media and its website to share information, including public service announcements and coping strategies. How did you spread the word about the campaign to some of those most affected by the pandemic who aren’t “digital natives,” such as older adults?

Burke-Garcia: Because we’ve been in a pandemic where social distancing was a recommended mitigation strategy, much of the dissemination had to be virtual. Having said that, How Right Now does offer messaging and resources in printable formats, content that can be shared at in-person meetings and town hall events, if held safely, and has worked with partners who shared messages via in-store televisions. The campaign has also used text messaging and radio to reach audiences who may not be online.

Interact for Health: The pandemic has been going on for a long time and continues to rage. Given the protracted situation have you had to—or do you anticipate—making any adjustments to the campaign?

Burke-Garcia: Mental health continues to be a need for many Americans, with some groups experiencing adverse effects disproportionately. The CDC continues to support How Right Now with the aim of supporting people throughout this pandemic and well beyond it.

Interact for Health: Are there any other lessons you have learned from How Right Now that can be applied to other health initiatives?

Burke-Garcia: Developing a campaign like How Right Now during this period of rapid change required flexibility. Our ability to be nimble was key to successful campaign implementation. As well, ongoing data collection allowed the team to synthesize multiple streams of data and enabled the campaign to better understand rapidly changing contexts and emerging audience needs. The most effective campaign creative offered positive messages along with actionable suggestions. This “one-two punch” may be effective for other campaigns, too. Finally, while we set out to develop How Right Now as culturally responsive and inclusive, our evaluation data underscore why this is so important – that is, English- and Spanish-speaking audiences had different emotional responses over the course of the last year and sought out different resources to support those needs. This also indicates a continued need for in-language and culturally appropriate communications and outreach strategies for future similar campaigns.​

Interact for Health: What are you most proud of?

Burke-Garcia: I am most proud of being part of a public health communication campaign that set out to support people in need throughout this pandemic. Being part of something with such a mission during an incredibly hard time in our history has meant so much to me. And getting to work with an amazing team from across CDC, the CDC Foundation, NORC, Burness and TMN Corp to do so has been an incredible experience. What is even more incredible is that our findings showed that the campaign did what it set out to do. Knowing that this campaign had a positive effect on people’s resilience during what has been an incredibly hard, stressful and truly sad time for many Americans – and people around the world – has been the honor of my career.

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