Fast Company

Lo-Fi Social Marketing Is Saving Lives in Haiti

How one organization, Population Services International, is using traditional and untraditional marketing to save lives.

children in Haiti

Haiti's cholera outbreak has reached a death toll of almost 300 and cases of infection have reached over 4,000. But one non-profit--Population Services International, a Washington D.C.-based social marketing group--is using the power of communications to ensure that local Haitians on the ground have as much information as possible to prevent infection and to know what to do if found with the disease. And their approach often takes a creative turn, responding to local contexts, as any good marketer does.

"Our approach is to use every available mass media communications channel to reach people with simple, consistent messages developed with the Ministry of Health," PSI's Country Director, Alison Malmqvist, tells Fast Company. "The consistency of messages is key--this helps calm a potential panic situation, guards against confusion and ensures people have the right information to protect themselves."

Social marketing is a tool used by dozens of public health agencies, and PSI's method relies on traditional marketing tools, but with a twist: The messaging encourages behavior change in the area of a particular health outcome, such as washing hands before eating or treating water before consuming. "Rumors can circulate quickly in this situation," says Malmqvist, "so we want to make sure the right messages are heard in the right way over and over across different media."

There are reports indicating that the outbreak may not be as drastic as feared. But in Haiti, where the outbreak is affecting primarily rural areas, a different sort of campaign is required. PSI often takes a grassroots approach to social marketing, as the organization mostly works in villages, requiring tailored tactics like mobile vans, entertainment education, and village tape players with megaphones.

"Our mobile cinema team will be on the road in the Artibonite Department this weekend showing a video film about prevention and treatment of diarrheal disease we recently completed as a joint production with the Jacmel Cine Institute--a local film school with whom we’ve begun to collaborate. The 30-minute narrative film is called 'Samy' and will be played on national television and has been provided to partner organizations so that they can also play it as widely as possible," says Malmqvist.

As of Wednesday, PSI is airing 135 radio spots per day on radio stations nationwide. These are spots for existing programs that have been swapped out very quickly with new messages about cholera prevention. "The new spot is in Creole and was created jointly with the Ministry of Health," says Malmqvist. "Our team have also appeared on nightly news programs on national television and radio with representatives from the ministry of health to talk about cholera prevention and demonstrate correct preparation of life-saving oral rehydration serum. We also partnered with Digicel to send out SMS text messages and Digicel has set up a number which can be dialed for more detailed information about cholera prevention."

When responding to any crisis, extensive coordination is required, but PSI is able to draw upon its years of experience in other countries to tailor its strategy for Haiti. PSI is active all over the developing world and has enlisted the support of major corporations and celebrities to achieve its goals. You may recall the very visible Aldo campaign working to de-stigmatize HIV/AIDS with the Hear, See, Speak no Evil campaign, featuring Ludacris, Avril Lavigne, and others.

"Thanks to the level of engagement and support from all sectors we’ve been able to turn our existing communications network and media relationships into a rapid response machine to get consistent messages out quickly and efficiently," Malmqvist says.

Follow me, Jenara Nerenberg, on Twitter.

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