Powerful communications may be the next major focus needed to substantially increase the numbers of school-based health centers. In June 2000, Making the Grade, the predecessor organization to the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, invited a number of communications experts to share their wisdom on how advocates can greatly expand the concept of school-based health centers to key audiences: voters, legislators, reporters, and school and hospital officials. Here is some advice to get you started.

Build a Communications Strategy

Articulate Your Cause

Frame it
Surveys reveal that Americans are generally distrustful of government and other large institutions, but react favorably to causes couched in terms of promoting family, friendship, and faith. Improving the lives of children, and not simply increasing the number of school-based health centers, is the most persuasive way to frame your cause. Get personal. State that these are our children, our grandchildren, and they need our help.

Establish the Need
State specifically the needs of children in your area and how school-based health centers address them, including any particular problem behaviors such as smoking, violence, eating disorders, etc. Include data on rates of uninsured children and on health care utilization among children. Quantify how many children are served by the health centers in your area; describe how many children are not served by school-based health centers but need them.

Answer the Question: Why Now?
A number of factors contribute to the need for more school-based health centers. These include an increasing number of school-aged children; the failure of many children to secure health insurance despite the State Child Health Insurance Program; and the persistent high levels of risky behaviors among children and youth with their negative impact on children’s well-being. (More information on the need for school-based health centers is available from Critical Caring on the Front Line)

Seek Partnerships with Organizations and Individuals That Can Provide You With the Broadest Political Constituency Possible.

  • Your partners are organizations and people who find economic, social, spiritual or political value in what you’re doing.
  • Your partners are organizations or individuals whose stature, influence, and knowledge make your cause valid and compelling. Local leaders who will validate your cause are especially influential.
  • Good institutional partners for school-based health centers might include children’s advocacy groups, health professional organizations, local foundations, children’s hospitals, school systems, parent groups, teacher organizations, neighborhood associations, fraternities and sororities, immigrants associations, religious institutions, youth organizations such as the Boy Scouts or 4-H clubs, and local business groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary or Kiwanis.

Select One Organization to Lead Your Cause.

  • The champion organization must have school-based health care as the only item on its agenda.
  • The organization should be designed to outlive any one charismatic leader who is your cause’s current champion.
  • For school-based health centers, the most likely champion organization at the federal level is the National Assembly for School-Based Health Care and at the state level, state associations for school-based health centers.

Communicate with State Legislators

Be Prepared to Answer the Three Questions that Every Legislator Asks.

  • How much is this going to cost?
  • What are other states doing? Legislators don’t want to forge new ground or lag behind other states.
  • Who is the opposition and what are they saying about you?

Keep Basic Rules in Mind

  • Much of policymaking is made by anecdote. Legislators respond to stories that touch their hearts. Write them some.
  • When writing to your legislator, keep it to one page. Tell them where they can go for more information.

Other Rules to Live By

  • Offer yourself as a surrogate staff member to legislators. You have expertise on the subject; they are usually understaffed and can use your help. You can e-mail them periodic political updates on your issue.
  • Recognize that constituent input is powerful. Politicians live from one election to the next and depend on voters for their longevity.
  • Collaborate with other children’s advocates. State legislators lament that children’s advocacy groups pull them in different directions. Ideally, the children’s advocacy community should come together and set its own legislative priority list for children in the state. They can then speak to the legislature with one voice.

Communicate With the Press

Identify the Reporter at Your Local Newspaper Who Covers Children’s Issues and Education.

  • Establish a relationship. Call them first before they call you.
  • A relationship built on trust is the best resource if bad things happen.

Present Yourself as a Resource on Child Health Issues and Invite the Reporter to Call When Covering the Topic in Any Way.

  • Reporters are always looking for stories and grow tired of depending on the same sources for issues they cover.
  • With newspapers, reporters can be contacted directly. Many are self-assigned.
  • When talking with a reporter, know what makes a good news story: timeliness, conflict or drama, or telling a compelling story.
  • Invite editorial page writers to your center. The impression they gain may inform the articles they write, now and in the future.

Provide Fact Sheets with Statistics about Need and the Services Your Center Provides. Be Sure to Answer Basic Questions.

  • How many uninsured children are in your community?
  • What issues do parents worry about? Are there data on drug use, drunk-driving accidents, school dropout, and violence?
  • How many children are unable to get help for emotional health problems?
  • Offer data on health improvements produced by your center. For example, report ;how many fewer children were sent home because of improved access to care; describe health crises avoided for children with asthma or track a decrease in emergency room visits.

Other Good Advice

  • The probability of news coverage increases if you tie your story to a timely event or offer human interest success stories about your center. The press likes to put a face with an issue.
  • Present your clinic as a solution to a problem.
  • Tell your newspaper about legislative activity that affects your program. If your region is passing a number of bills concerning children at one time, organize a coalition of children’s advocates to speak with the editorial board and suggest they bundle the legislative activity into one story about actions affecting children.
  • Keep the conversation going. Communication is a daily responsibility!

With thanks to our experts: William Walch, president, DCA Inc.; Paula Wolf, chief lobbyist, Covenant for North Carolina’s Children; Barbara Arrigo, editorial page writer, Detroit Free Press; Charles Fulwood, communications consultant.