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Friday, August 2, 2013

Feeling Stupid? Don't Sweat It

Over roast chicken and blueberry crumble this week, I hosted some friends for dinner who are in my public health doctoral program. As we topped ourselves off for a third glass of wine, our conversation turned to my summer residency here at Brown Miller Communications which is focused on an unusual phenomenon happening in Northern California that affects the health of young people. I explained I was doing research to develop a communications strategy on something we just don’t fully understand yet.

That night I was struck again with a familiar feeling – simply not having the answers and feeling stupid for it. For anyone who works in communications, it can be awkward to not have the right words to explain a phenomenon when you’re asked for answers.

My case in point: For a specific county in Northern California, recent data shows extremely high rates of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) among certain young people. These numbers are literally off the charts and represent a crisis for young people in that county. At the same time, data also shows rates of teen births on the decline. A young person who has received sexuality education and has the tools and personal resources to keep themselves safe from pregnancy at a young age would logically also stay safe from STDs. But that’s not the case in this county – and no one knows why.

Social science research – and the communications strategies that sprout out of it – is all about searching for answers where there aren’t any yet. Doing social science research can make you feel stupid and at a loss for effectively communicating about an urgent issue. For my project, communications must be tailored to different audiences affected by high rates of STDs and those with the potential to help solve the problem, including teens, parents, community leaders and public health professionals. But before that can happen, research is needed to understand community perceptions about why this is happening and what we can do about it. In other words, we have to push into the unknown.

In my experience you can’t let feeling stupid or not having all the answers stop you from delivering authentic, honest communications about an issue. I don’t need stacks of conclusive research to conduct interviews and talk about this problem affecting young people, but I do need to communicate compassionately and authentically about what we know and what we’re learning. And I also need a willingness to embrace stupidity – for now.


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