Susan Kirby

After earning an undergraduate degree in business marketing and working in marketing with telecommunications giant AT&T for 10 years, Susan Kirby was drawn to the world of nutrition and physical activity. She said she was doing “the whole aerobics instruction thing” when she learned about a Masters in Public Health (MPH) program during an aerobics certification course. She said, “I found my calling in life.” She started with the MPH in behavioral sciences and health promotion, focusing on health communication.  She realized she knew a lot about marketing and that public health in the United States at the time—around 1990—was moving in that direction.  She focused her doctoral work on social marketing and health communication through independent studies (since few complete health communication programs were available at the time) in the schools of journalism, mass communication, and business (MBA).

Susan started her public health career at Emory University, then worked in a variety of positions at CDC in health communication. She said inside CDC she worked with people who were, “dedicated, professional, passionate, and smart—who went way beyond the boundaries of their job description to get the job done.”

She said, “It was very stimulating, but hard work. We helped develop capacity building tools, CDCynergy, and professional development for health communication and social marketing. We were doing really interesting, cutting edge things that we will likely never have the money for again. Our office at CDC helped mobilize health communication programs all over the country that we didn’t have previously.” Susan chaired the Innovations in Social Marketing Conference for three years in the mid 1990s, the precursor to the now very popular National Health Marketing Conference.

Susan Kirby now works with a wide range of clients doing social marketing and health communication work through her consulting firm,Kirby Marketing Solutions.  She recently recently completed working with CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health (DASH) to help them develop a strategic plan that was marketing driven, strategic in nature, but also easy to communicate to the myriad of stakeholders DASH has.

Susan’s team is also supporting AHRQ to research how medical professionals, researchers, and the public are having conversations about healthcare associated infections (HAI) in the online world. AHRQ wants to understand how to communicate with these audiences about their research on reducing HAIs in ways that the audiences are already uses, such as social media platforms that include Twitter, medical blogs, and possibly Facebook. She says, “It’s important for agencies to communicate with their target audiences in ways that are natural and organic so we are conducting research to determine if social media is a natural and prevalent means for medical professionals to connect to one another about HAIs.  If it is, which is debatable, due to the sensitive nature of healthcare , HAIs, and professional advice, AHRQ would like to be out front in helping providers get access to the latest research on HAIs.”

Susan often teaches a graduate class at UCLA in health communication. Students she works with have had theoretical underpinnings in other courses, so she asks them to put what they’ve learned into practice. They develop a strategic intervention, write a proposal, and defend it. She says, “That’s the fun part—getting them to think strategically.” She tells them to do a situation analysis, and revisit their decisions several times, zoning in on the target audience. In defining the target audience, she says, “They’re always too broad. Always.” She encourages them to think through the size of the target population, the resources available, and how far they need to go. She tells them, “I can’t tell you when it is the right number, but it will be when you can defend it… when you have good data and you can make a difference.”

Susan said, “The field of social marketing and its close sister health communication have grown quite a lot since the early days of development in the 1990s in the U.S., and before that in the international community.  There are journals and conferences now we didn’t have back then.” She recommends reading:

She says that the field of health communications has been expanding in recent years, while much of government has been contracting. So the proportions of health communications opportunities are expanding at the federal, state, and even local levels in government positions, from what she can see.  She adds, “But I also see new jobs positions in the companies with a social responsibility mindset and that is growing every day.”

Susan tells her students at UCLA to “borrow what they can from the private sector marketing world, because it has more money and leeway to explore new methods than public health.” Susan recommends to stay in touch with socially responsible programs and job leads in the private sector. She says, “if you can rotate into a job or two (in the business world) throughout your career.  You’ll be more valuable in both worlds.”


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