Mark Miller leads strategic communications to support the Bethesda, Maryland-based de Beaumont Foundation, a charitable organization that develops and invests in programs and tools to improve the health and well-being of communities across the country.
Interact for Health: The de Beaumont Foundation is active in improving health on many fronts. How do you identify the projects you support?
Miller: Rather than targeting specific health issues or geographic areas, we work to strengthen health nationally, starting at the community level. We invest in cures, not Band-Aids, so we are looking for projects that create tools or provide information that will have a long-lasting impact and change systems. That can include promoting policies, creating trainings or testing strategies.
Interact for Health: One role the de Beaumont Foundation has played throughout the pandemic is providing tools and resources to support organizations responding directly to the pandemic. What needs have you been able to meet? What would you like to address next?
Miller: Building support for public health must begin with an understanding of what public health is — and how it’s different from health care. One of our priorities over the years has been providing practical tools to help people communicate more effectively about public health. The pandemic made that need more urgent. We’ve developed strategic messaging, graphics and other resources that have helped people understand the most pressing health issues and raised the profile of public health workers and the vital role they play. ... We pride ourselves in identifying gaps and finding new ways to fill them. We created the Public Health Communications Collaborative with partners including the CDC Foundation and Trust for America’s Health to fill significant messaging gaps among government public health leaders. Also, we founded the Health Action Alliance with the CDC Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and others to provide public health resources for business leaders.
Interact for Health: Many of the actions that people should take in response to the pandemic such as masking and vaccination are divided across political lines. Your foundation engaged Republican strategist Frank Luntz for polling and focus groups to better understand perceptions and modify language. What were some key learnings from this work?
Miller: As the pandemic wore on, it became clear that conservative Americans were the least likely to follow public health guidance like social distancing and wearing a mask. Public health guidance can’t be something that only certain people follow, so we thought it was important to explore the type of messengers and language that could reach conservative Americans. That’s when we reached out to Frank Luntz, and our polls, focus groups and messaging informed national campaigns and communications at the state, local and federal levels. You can see our findings and message resources at ChangingtheCovidConversation.org.
Interact for Health: You’ve been very active in countering the spread of misinformation associated with COVID-19. What has been the greatest challenge?
Miller: Instead of picking one challenge, I’ll give you three: technology, polarization and the lack of accountability. First, there has always been misinformation about health and other issues, but this is the most significant health event since the advent of social media. False information — often planted intentionally to drive anti-vax or partisan agendas — can reach millions of people with the click of a button. Social media companies are incentivized by views, clicks and advertising, not by supporting science and truth. Second, at a time when our nation is divided along political lines, misinformation is being amplified by elected officials and within echo chambers on social media and the real world. In terms of accountability, de Beaumont is working to build support to hold medical professionals accountable for intentionally spreading misinformation about COVID and vaccines. Even though they represent a small minority of physicians, these “disinformation doctors” have a lot of influence, and they are threatening to erode trust in the medical profession and putting lives at risk.
Interact for Health: As the omicron variant subsides, what message do public health programs and their partners need to drive home?
Miller: Improving health requires a sustained focus on prevention and preparation. State and local public health has been underfunded for decades, and when there’s a crisis like this pandemic, the federal government often provides short-term, narrow funding without building the necessary infrastructure to be ready for the next emergency. Public health professionals have been stretched to their limits, and many have been harassed or fired for doing their jobs. Many states are actively weakening public health authority. So even when the pandemic subsides, we must recognize that we are less prepared now than we were two years ago when this pandemic began. Our safety, security and prosperity will be at risk if we don’t make public health a national priority.
Interact for Health: What is the most important lesson the pandemic has taught you, and how will this impact the broader mission of your foundation to improve the health of communities across the country?
Miller: It’s a cliché, but it’s never been clearer that we’re all in this together, whatever “this” is at the time. Ensuring that all Americans have the chance to live a healthy life will require rebuilding trust and a shared sense of community and responsibility. From a communications perspective, I’ve learned that words are important, but it matters who says them and how they are said.
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