A Conversation with CHASP Faculty Fellow Dr. Mike Mackert
Dr. Mike Mackert is a professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations and the Department of Population Health at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also the Director of the Center for Health Communication (CHC), a joint venture between Moody College of Communication and Dell Medical School geared at improving health through evidence-based communication research. As a dual-degree student studying public health and public affairs, I was interested to find out more about how his career path led him where he is and his previous health communication work, particularly as it relates to effective messaging for health behaviors. I also wanted to find out what CHC could teach the future policymakers at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
When asked about what or who influenced his career path, Dr. Mackert’s reply was a comforting response to hear from someone so accomplished – he stumbled into this career by happy accident. He began his undergraduate career in chemistry at Michigan State University, only finding he enjoyed communications when he took it for an elective. He completed his degree in chemistry and applied to graduate school where he worked on a project giving care to hospice patients by video phone. When looking to go for his Ph.D., an advisor saw his application and asked if he would like to come work with her on telemedicine research.
Continuing the theme of happy accident, Dr. Mackert began his career at UT Austin in the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations where he learned to teach advertising on the fly, as well as help focus on a “new” area for the school – health communication. When Moody College of Communication was given the original grant that changed the school’s name to Moody, it also included a gift to start the Center for Health Communication.
Jay Bernhardt, an accomplished professor who used to lead health communication and marketing at the Center for Disease Control, was named the founding director of CHC. He arrived on campus to start his work but was quickly named interim dean and then permanent dean of the Moody College of Communication. Dr. Mackert happened to be at the right place at the right time and was chosen to replace Dr. Bernhardt as the director of CHC. He notes it’s been a challenge at times, especially due to the sheer distance of the two colleges being so far apart, but they try to do things like alternate meeting locations and vary topics to help keep attendance up from both schools. Having this joint venture has been especially impactful for the Dell Medical faculty, students and staff, who time and time again note after lectures and workshops that they’ve never thought about communication in health settings in the way CHC covers it.
Shifting gears, I asked Dr. Mackert about successful interventions that he’s been a part of and what future policymakers could learn from the results. His answer was made of up three major themes:
- First, the explosion of available data is a challenge for everyone. Especially in a health context, where everyone can visit Google and become an “expert”, it’s difficult to know what is credible and what isn’t, and we need to continue to think about how to address too much data.
- Second, it’s important to remember that an average person will not know an issue as well as you, the expert, knows it. Advertising has a fascinating approach to this that policymakers would do well to keep in mind – at ad firms, there is a specific job to represent the voice of the consumer. This way, if the company producing a product makes claims about how big or important something is (let’s say a brand of dish soap), the voice of the consumer can remind them that at the end of the day the dish soap lives under the sink and is used for 5 seconds in a day. This helps keep in mind the reality that no one cares about what you care about in the way that you do.
- Dr. Mackert’s final lesson was the most powerful: if you can’t say what you’re saying in one sentence, you don’t know what you’re saying yet. And if you don’t know what you’re saying yet, it doesn’t matter what it looks like on a billboard or a social media post – your message won’t be clear and your audience won’t fully understand.
At the end of our conversation, Dr. Mackert was off to lead a CHC meeting where results from recent work around effective communication strategies in clinical practices was being shared. Some meetings, like this one, focus on sharing results. Others focus on challenging the way we think and talk about things in a healthcare setting.
Recently, CHC hosted a workshop focused on mental health, and Dr. Mackert started the meeting with advice that’s relevant for all of us today. “Today, someone is probably going to say something in a talk or in a question that could offend someone who thinks about the issue a different way. Let’s all be friends, we’re here because we care, and let’s have respectful dialogs. We’re all going to trip up at some point.”
Kat Sisler is in the second year of the dual masters degree at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and The University of Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health. Her specializations are in health promotion and international affairs. She's particularly interested in food/nutrition issues, decision-making and health behavior "nudges." She is a graduate research affiliate with Innovations for Peace and Development and this semester will be evaluating Foundation Communities' Healthy Food Pantry Project. Previously she worked with CATCH Global Foundation on their e-cigarette prevention program for middle and high school students.