Posted by: davidjolson | 12/22/2010

The Top 10 in 2010 Global Health Communication

If global health communication was characterized by anything in 2010, it was the rise of Twitter and other social media among non-profit organizations as a way of bypassing increasingly irrelevant traditional media and taking their messages directly to their target groups. From the Global Health Council, we saw more and more of our members — large and small — embracing new media like blogging, micro-blogging and social networks like Facebook. At the year’s last meeting of our Global Health Communicators Working Group in November, I asked for a show of hands of those whose organizations were not using social media. No hands went up.

Bloggers cover a talk by Melinda Gates from "Bloggers' Alley" at a TEDx event at the U.N. Summit on the Millennium Development Goals in September.

The trend established itself in the early days of January with a handful of reproductive health organizations that coordinated communications efforts around U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech on the 15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development resulting in more than 500 tweets, or 10 per minute. As the year went on, more and more organizations employed coordinated social media campaigns, especially with Twitter — PAI on the Green Budget, PATH on the Blog Action Day on Water, Johns Hopkins University on World Pneumonia Day and several on the U.N. Special Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, just to name a few. The Global Fund launched its “Born HIV Free” campaign in May that relied almost exclusively on online video and social media. The secret was trying to motivate as many of your colleagues — including those not working specifically on your issue — to join in your campaign, understanding that they might later ask you to join their campaign.

It looks like this trend will continue into 2011 as more organizations deploy these tools. Here are our other picks, in a crowded field, of top global health communications developments we observed this year:

1.        The earthquake in Haiti showed how mobile technologies could be used as a force for good. An unprecedented amount of donations were received via mobile text messages. And Ushahidi Haiti was an innovative mapping tool that helped organizations on the ground coordinate their actions.

2.        2010 was a coming of age for mobile health, with its potential for helping developing countries solve thorny health problems with technology. Much of this was highlighted in the stunningly successful mHealth Summit in November that drew over 2,500 participants from 49 countries, including Bill Gates and Ted Turner.

3.        The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation upped its growing influence in global health communications considerably: In August, it transferred its “Living Proof” campaign to the ONE Campaign. In September, it helped The Guardian newspaper launch a new global development website.  And in October, it helped ABC launch a global health series, “Be the Change; Save a Life,” that aired its first episode on ABC’s 20/20 on Dec. 17.   This trend was analyzed minutely in a two-part series in the Columbia Journalism Review and in this interview by Tom Paulson with Kate James and Tom Scott of the Gates Foundation.

4.        The Huffington Post grew in importance to the global health community as more of us learned to navigate its waters and get ourselves and our bosses registered as HuffPost bloggers. This was given a boost in October when HuffPost launched HuffPost Health.

5.        The successful Women Deliver Conference in Washington got coverage global health advocates usually only dream of — it was covered by 235 reporters and generated 295 news stories.  It helped that Melinda Gates turned up to commit $1.5 billion in new grant money for maternal and newborn health.

6.        Two events at the U.N. Special Summit on the MDGs showed new ways of communicating on international development — the TEDx media event and the U.N. Foundation’s Digital Media Lounge.

7.        In November, Link TV launched, a new technology which combines the video-sharing power of YouTube, the depth of information of Wikipedia and the mission-driven focus of an advocacy website.

8.        The 2010 winners of the Global Health Council Excellence in Media Awards included Australian television, an undercover African journalist and a bio-medical journal.

9.        And advocates found that contests were an effective way to gather data and find solutions to development challenges. For example, Forum One Communications hosted the Aid Information Challenge. And the World Bank is hosting one now called Apps for Development, that challenges the public to create innovative software applications for solving some of the world’s most pressing problems.

10.    We also noted the increasing use of open source platforms for communications such as Drupal and WordPress gaining more and more traction in the international development community.

Have I missed any big global health communications developments? If so, let me know and post a comment below.


  1. Thanks so much for posting this. In particular it was a great validation for those of us pushing a social media strategy. Not only are we on the right track, but if we don’t get on board, we will be left behind!

  2. Thank you for the great article, congratulations to all those on your list.

    The BORN HIV FREE campaign has achievable goals. – .

    The African Broadcast Media Partnership is contributing to creating an HIV-free generation through its TV campaign. You can see the TV shows and download guides for developing your own shows from C-Hub, an online resource of communication materials.

    We also highlight some of the best global health communication strategies through 2010.

    • Tammy,
      Please send us the link to C-Hub so our readers can check it out. Sounds like a great resource!

  3. Hi David,
    As a journalist who works for an organization, NPR, that is branching out into social media but perhaps mostly still a member of what you dub the “increasingly irrelevant traditional media,” I’m a bit concerned with those who think organizational PR and advocacy communications is a replacement for traditional journalism.

    It is getting harder for the public (and apparently, even some in the media) to tell the difference between journalism and promotion of a cause or agenda. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an important and valuable difference.

    I would encourage those in the global health and development community to figure out how to support the growth of independent global health and development journalism (as, in fact, the Gates Foundation has done … however imperfectly) rather than celebrate the means to end runs around it.


  4. Hi David,

    Thanks for the informative post. It’s great to see that global health communications is making strides to take advantage of new media opportunities. But I agree with Tom Paulson below that we can’t neglect traditional news media without running the risk of just “talking to ourselves.” Even though international journalism continues to operate in crisis mode to some extent, it’s still an essential part of communicating with the wider public about important global health issues in an independent and usually more objective way than public health advocates can do.

    That said, it’s also important for advocates to use new media tools well. My hope is that in 2011 we see some excellent, evidence-based studies coming out to assess our use of these new media strategies. Who is the target audience? How effective are we in reaching them? And most importantly, are they resulting in improved health outcomes?

    Thanks again,

  5. I totally agree with both Tom and Kate (above) that global health communicators must not neglect traditional journalism and that organizational PR and advocacy communications should not be a replacement for traditional journalism. My less-than-artful reference to the “increasingly irrelevant traditional media” was not meant to suggest that we in international development communications should ignore traditional media. Rather, it was a lament that more and more, traditional media is ignoring international development because of the changing economics of U.S. media and other forces. Our response should not be to give up on traditional journalism but, as Tom suggests, “to support the growth of independent global health and development journalism,” as is being done by the Gates Foundation, the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and a few others, while we continue to improve our use of social media (and figure out how to measure its impact better). Thanks for your comments,

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