Bold Thinking at Abt: Global Health Security

Gael O’Sullivan

Principal Associate, International Health
Social and Behavior Change Communication | Bio

Can we sell global health security like we sell soap? Abt Associates’ Gael O’Sullivan knows we not only can, but we must.
With over 25 years of experience in social and behavior change communication, O’Sullivan has led messaging efforts around the globe related to HIV/AIDS, maternal, newborn and child health and chronic disease prevention. What is important to remember O’Sullivan says, is the audience, what they need, what they feel and what solutions will work for them.

Understanding the Audience

For a woman who is pregnant or considering becoming pregnant in a place like Puerto Rico, O’Sullivan believes the circumstances are scary enough without “bombarding” the woman with frequent messages about vector control and pregnancy risks. She says offering a positive benefit that audiences can relate to can make a big difference between audiences tuning in or tuning out.
“Why not talk about what it means to be a good mother in Puerto Rico, and have a happy family?” she asks. “In approaching the subject from a positive frame, you are not beating someone over the head and making them feel like they’re not a good person because they haven’t found every source of standing water on their property.”

Enhancing Self-Efficacy through a Wider Approach

In addition to building around the woman, O’Sullivan stresses that audience engagement is key. Slick television ads are not always the best, most productive, method of getting audiences to buy into a product or make a change in their lives. Social and behavior change communication entails in-depth audience research while looking at consumers through a broader lens. O’Sullivan explains why messaging must address the whole community rather than just the individual woman.
“I can convince you that you should space your pregnancies, show you how to do it, and where you can go to get different contraceptive methods,” she says. “But if your husband, mother-in-law, or extended family is not on board with it, or you are facing social pressure to have a large family, all of the great messaging  is not going to work.”
According to O’Sullivan, this illustrates the importance of “self-efficacy,” meaning the woman’s ability to actually follow through and carry out her desired behavior. To boost self-efficacy, she explains that conversations with the audience are more effective than one-way messaging.
“Social and behavior change communication is two-sided. Like selling soap, there is supply and demand, and both sides must be integrated for success,” says O’Sullivan. “If I design the most brilliant campaign that gets a woman to walk through a clinic door, but she is treated rudely by the provider or turned away because she is judged as being too young to use family planning, then we have all lost,” she says. “We need to think about how to have tighter synergy and more holistic modeling, so that when we generate demand we feel confident that the services and products people need are going to be available and delivered properly.” 

Areas of Expertise

  • Social and Behavior Change Communication
  • Social Marketing
  • Family Planning
  • Reproductive Health
  • Children’s Health
  • International Health
  • Tobacco
  • Public-Private Partnerships