Having grown up in South Africa, I've always had a love for Africa's vast natural beauty. On a past trip to Botswana, I found myself on a game drive tracking a pride of lions to photograph. We were aware there were lions in the area because of visible tracks, but we knew they would not simply arrive in plain sight. According to our expert guide, finding them, and getting the best photos, would require following marks in the dirt, listening for warning sounds from other animals, and watching their behavior. We had to take action ourselves.
Although worlds removed from lion photography, the same can be said for those of us who work to raise awareness for public health issues like good vision. We can ensure that, through the sharing of evidence and key messages, our audience is aware of the impact of uncorrected vision, but the information we share must inform and lead to action if we are to create a lasting change.
A 2017 article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled Stop Raising Awareness Already, highlights the fact that a significant portion of awareness-raising is based on the premise that more knowledge automatically produces changes in behavior, a method of communication called The Information Deficit Model. The model assumes that much of the public’s skepticism about any given topic is rooted, quite simply, in a lack of knowledge, and that if the public only knew more, they would be more likely to embrace the information. We know this is not always the case, despite the multiple ways we all communicate with our personal and professional networks.
The authors go on to say that, “To move the needle on the issues we care about the most, research and experience both show that we must define actionable and achievable calls to action that will lead a specific group of people to do something they haven’t done before.”
In its Strategic Communications Framework, the WHO reveals a similar philosophy: “To provide information, advice, and guidance to decision-makers (key audiences) to prompt action that will protect the health of individuals, families, communities and nations.”
And while awareness must clearly be part of the strategy to drive substantial change, we must identify the ways that awareness leads to changed behaviors and meaningful outcomes. As we have expanded our work at the VII, these practical steps have served as a strong foundation:
1 – REACH THE RIGHT AUDIENCE
To lead groups of people like those mentioned above, we must keep a narrow focus on who comprises our audience. As an organization devoted to a global public health issue, we can’t solely rely on reaching the general public as our audience. Over the years, we’ve embraced the fact that if we are committed to making the case for good vision, we must start with officials who can make the policy changes that catalyze a larger movement. That means ensuring that advocates, changemakers, key influencers, government officials and legislators in strategic locations have the relevant information through constant communication to enact change in their locality, region, or nation.
2 – TELL STORIES, AND TELL THEM OFTEN
If we want people to engage and take action, we have to connect to what they care about. Stories are one way to do that, and we can not overstate the power of human interest.
In a non-operational environment, this can be challenging. We don’t always have feel-good stories about directly providing glasses to a child in need, or of opening an access point or completing a piece of research or legislation, but we can tell the stories of those who do. We’ve done that through our guest blogs and webinars where we invite those who are on the frontlines to share their work. For example, read first-hand accounts of research on the success of OneSight’s vision centers in The Gambia, and also new road safety research that will drive policy change from the perspective of a select group of experts directly involved with the issue.
3 – HARNESS THE POWER OF OTHER VOICES
Collaborations with partners within and outside of vision have been key to inspiring action. As the saying goes, there’s a natural ripple effect when partner relationships lead to strategic connections with their partners and others who we may never have addressed the issue of poor vision. Without The Cooper Institute, we may not have had the opportunity to reach an audience that cares about children’s fitness. We may never have had the audience of those who care about gender equity without a collaboration with media partners like The Nerdy Optometrist podcast. Connections count!
We can’t focus only on raising awareness for awareness’s own sake. But without an informed audience, no change can happen. We must continue to invest in that process. According to the Eliminating Poor Vision in a Generation report (2020), an investment of $14 billion over the next 30 years can eliminate uncorrected poor vision by 2050. Of that, $4.5 billion would increase awareness of poor vision in order to drive public demand for glasses, uptake of services, and investment in new and existing services.
The investment requires smart stewardship and a strategic focus on ensuring that action remains an essential outcome. Change happens when people are moved to take part in something bigger than themselves. It’s our role to help them make their impact.
Andrea Kirsten-Coleman is the Global Communications and Awareness Manager at the Vision Impact Institute. In her role, she is responsible for telling the story and creating awareness of the need to prioritize healthy vision on a global scale.