case study

Charting a Course for an Equity-centered Public Health Data System


The Challenge

Public health data should reflect the needs of everyone in America—regardless of their race, where they live, or how much money they have. The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the deficits of our public health infrastructure. When data are incomplete and inconsistent across state and local data collection systems, aren’t shared in a timely fashion, or don’t capture vital race and ethnicity information, it’s impossible to understand the full impact of any crisis. For the best policy, we need the best data that captures the varying needs of our communities. 

Recognizing the need for a modernized public health data system with an eye toward equity, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) established a first-of-its-kind National Commission to Transform Public Health Data Systems to reimagine how data are collected, shared and used and to identify what investments are needed to improve health equity. The commission examined both the systems and the data needed to ensure public health information works for all, including who the data we collect elevates, who is being centered in our data, who is being excluded and why. Ultimately, the commission offered recommendations on how to gather, share and effectively use data to inform equitable policies and practices at the local, state and national levels.

Our Approach

In early 2021, RWJF enlisted Burness to support the commission and all the major activities associated with the development and promotion of their recommendations. Burness guided the communication activities from the start, from supporting the announcement, to the commission meetings, to the final report in late 2021.

The first phase of communications consisted of standing up the commission, developing consistent messages about what the group aimed to accomplish, preparing the materials that helped to inform the commission’s deliberations, providing meeting support and assisting in the development and design of the recommendations. Burness also worked with the commission director on a Health Affairs blog to detail the commission’s goal, which was the highest performing blog in 2021. 

During the next phase of the communications activities, Burness worked closely with the commission to develop a “first look” preview report to share with select audiences and accompanying messages.

In October, the final release of the report encompassed a wide-ranging communications effort that included message development, policymaker and partner outreach, and a robust media engagement strategy. Burness communications efforts included the development of summary and background materials, a website landing page housing all report materials, a press release, presentation slide decks and a rich communications toolkit for commissioners.

Results and Impact

Burness’ comprehensive dissemination efforts of the final report and recommendations included a virtual launch event, media and policymaker engagement, social promotion, topical webinars and more. 

The launch event, which took place virtually due to COVID-19, and involved the commission director and two commissioners, garnered attendance from more than 760 people of the more than 1,300 registrants, including reporters from U.S. News & World Report and KQED. Other attendees included state and local government officials and stakeholders from the private sector, nonprofits and academia. RWJF’s Alonzo Plough and Commission Director Gail Christopher also joined forces to moderate a panel discussion with several commissioners and other national leaders about the recommendations as part of APHA’s 2021 annual meeting. 

As part of the dissemination strategy, we asked commissioners, RWJF staff and partners to promote the recommendations, using materials we developed and distributed, including social media graphics and content. As a result, there was robust social media activity promoting the webinar and the report, and our social coverage included more than 180 posts.

We’ve also seen good media coverage, including mentions in NBC News, Governing, STAT, Stanford Social Innovation Review and more. Additionally, our announcement piece in Health Affairs was the most-read Health Affairs GrantWatch article in 2021.

We closed out the year with a media briefing with reporters about the need for an equity-centered public health data system. The webinar garnered attendance from 70 registrants, including reporters from The New York Times, Buzzfeed, Fast Company and more. 

Building off the successful release, Burness is working to continue the momentum and promotion of the commission’s recommendations with a steady drumbeat of activities, including webinars, conferences and speaking engagements, op-ed placements, media stories, journal articles and ongoing social media promotion.

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