First ladies can shine as champions of change

World leaders convened at the United Nations headquarters in New York City for the 2011 High-Level Meeting on Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases.

In late September, world leaders convened at the United Nations headquarters in New York City for the 2011 High-Level Meeting on Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs).

The meeting focused attention on a public health crisis that has made a rapid ascension to earn the label of top global killer - accounting for more than 63% of all deaths. Cardiovascular diseases are now the leading cause of death worldwide, with pulmonary diseases, cancer, and diabetes close behind.

According to The Washington Post, "the major killers now are a different set of enemies, a drab regiment marching under the banner of non-communicable disease."

Drab or not, this global killer is quickly gaining ground. According to the World Health Organization, deaths from NCDs will increase 17% in the next decade. In Africa, it is expected to be 24%.

As partners in the African First Ladies Initiative, organized by the RAND Corporation and in conjunction with the US Department of State, 10 African first ladies met with former first lady Rosalynn Carter, Mrs. Cherie Blair (wife of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair), and leading authorities in policy and partnership to discuss how first ladies can be champions of change.

First ladies have long used their platforms to bring attention to education and public health challenges. PR pros appreciate how notable figures can spotlight an issue.

As many African nations inch toward recovery from the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, helping each of these incredible first ladies and their staffs continue to develop strategies to advocate, manage resources, and engage stakeholders is a terrific privilege. As part of the program, the first ladies' senior advisers met with industry experts to help design a support system to enhance executive decision-making through a policy framework.

My session was about crafting messages and targeting audiences, particularly across multiple platforms. We discussed the block-and-tackle issues, such as working with the media and taking calculated risks with social media (taking videos at speeches and posting to your site and YouTube, tweeting from the road, posting pictures to Facebook, and sharing their public schedules). The most robust exchange, however, was about speeches and what I call the three Ps (preparation, purpose, and performance).

A speechwriter I know once said, "Being a speechwriter is the professional equivalent to having a root canal every day." It is a rare talent. My advice to the group was to value and protect your speechwriter. Help with the preparation, including clearly defining the purpose for the remarks and articulate three main messages. Provide access to experts and good stories about real people. We also talked about how the prep work for a speech is so much more than just words on the page, such as how logistics can impact deli- very: what is the room size; is there a Q&A; what type of lighting options are available; what is the speaking order; and so on.

Providing guidance to enhance the first ladies' performance is when the conversation got a little personal. We talked about the need to consider appropriate attire, enforcing length of remarks, and the best way to provide feedback about delivery. Though tricky, it was probably the most interesting and funny part of our conversation. African or American, it was proven to me again that as staffers we are wildly protective of our principals. But, once we let the guard down and started sharing, the conversations became much more informative. One fellow was particularly surprised that some struggled with the first lady running long on speech delivery. His solution was simple: tell her she has half the time that she really does and she might finish just a little long.

The program's goal is to strengthen their offices and enhance communications plans to help first ladies be even more effective to improve the well-being of their nations' citizens.

First ladies in Africa have helped lead their countries to healthier and more productive lives where babies are born AIDS-free, children are educated, and women are able to contribute to their families' financial well-being. With the rise of NCD-related deaths, there is so much more for them to do. However, it is helpful to slow down and remember what Hillary Clinton taught us: it takes a village. 

Sally McDonough serves as a volunteer adviser to the George W. Bush Institute for its Women's Initiative, as well as communications director for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

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