Collaborating to advance health communication

As a generation of pioneering scholars retired, several new hires are working together to continue Annenberg’s legacy as a leader in Health Communication.

What goes on in people's brains when they feel the urge to smoke? How can public health officials prevent young people from starting to vape? What drives people to believe in health-related conspiracy theories?

These are just some of the questions that Annenberg School for Communication professors David Lydon-Staley and Andy Tan are helping one another answer.

Mary Andrews (center)(L to R): Andy Tan, David Lydon-Staley, Emily Falk, and John B. Jemmott III.
Mary Andrews (center) successfully defended her dissertation in December. Her dissertation committee members included four health communication faculty (L to R): Andy Tan, David Lydon-Staley, Emily Falk, and John B. Jemmott III. (Image: Courtesy of Annenberg School for Communication)

The two health communication researchers both joined the Annenberg faculty in 2020, working from home as the COVID pandemic was limiting social contact—and urgently demonstrating the importance of their work.

They, along with fellow faculty members Emily Falk, Dolores Albarracín, John Jemmott III, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Damon Centola, and others are keeping the School at the cutting edge of health communication research, a legacy established by long-time collaborators professors emeritus Robert Hornik and Joseph Cappella, now legends in the field of health communication, and others like the late Martin Fishbein.

This semester, they began meeting as a more formal health communication group with an eye to increasing their collaboration and impact.

Together Tan and Lydon-Staley search for ways to curb tobacco use and promote health and well-being, especially in young people, though each approaches this goal differently. Much of Tan’s work involves community-engaged research, bringing in community members to co-create with academics, while Lydon-Staley asks participants to answer questions on their smartphones as they go about their daily lives, looking at health-related decisions made in everyday contexts.

Tan and Lydon-Staley are currently collaborating on two projects: one involves creating and testing public health messages designed to educate smokers about health harms of nicotine and the other analyzes how people search for health information online.

He and Tan are using this fact to craft educational messages about nicotine that elicit curiosity and better recall in smokers. These messages are aimed at groups traditionally targeted by tobacco advertisers—young adult smokers, rural adult smokers, and Black smokers.

“More recently, public health experts are trying to communicate that there is a continuum of harm when it comes to tobacco products,” Tan says. “At the top you have a cigarette and then on the lower end, you have products like nicotine patches. If someone is smoking, we want them to stop, or at least use something on the low end.”

Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.