APA develops tools to stay top-of-mind

By taking its message to various audiences, the American Psychological Association stays relevant

With a little help from the American Psychological Association (APA), one doesn't have to be a scientist to understand how genes impact drug abuse, or why artificial sweeteners could lead to weight gain.

In addition to being the leading professional organization for psychologists in the US (with approximately 148,000 members), the APA translates the highly technical language and principles of key psychological studies into accessible documents intended to provide members of the general public with information to apply to their lives.

"Our important public communications message is [that] we want the public to be as savvy consumers for mental health services as [they are] for physical health services," said Rhea Farberman, executive director of public and member communications. "Science is critical, but we have to make sure the public understands the science so they'll be able to appreciate and apply it."

While handling the regular communications needs of the professional organization, including membership marketing and services, the communications team is also working to make psychology a general topic of conversation among the public. To that end, APA aims for APA.org to become the online "go-to site" for mental-health issues.

The association will launch a new Web site early next year, but its current site plays a key role in disseminating its information to journalists, with four to six releases posted per month. The releases include information from articles that will be published in the APA's 50-plus journals.

Press releases cover a variety of topics concerning human behavior, such as how employer interest in employee well-being leads to a more successful workplace. Other recent topics included how children show goal-oriented behavior by the age of three, and a study that found the use of artificial sweeteners might paradoxically lead to greater body fat, because of changes to the body's ability to regulate caloric intake.

The APA public and member communications team has a staff of 90 that works closely with researchers, who in turn are trained to speak with the media.

"We work with the media on a day-to-day basis to help them educate the public about psychological issues, behavioral intervention, what is quality intervention, and how to choose a provider based on those types of issues," Farberman says. "[But] if a journalist called and wanted to speak with an expert on childhood depression, he or she would not be speaking to one of my staff, but a researcher doing work in that area."

Sometimes the topics for media outreach are more lighthearted. Last Valentine's Day, for example, the team offered a number of academics to speak on such topics as how love affects the brain, and how romance and relationships change as people age.

Success is measured not only by proliferation of the message in various media outlets or site hits, but also by the ability of the general public to understand psychology and the role of psychologists in changing human behavior. The communications team is currently in the process of building a public education campaign to correct common misconceptions about the uses of psychology and psychologists.

"Often, people tend to think of psychologists as a therapist someone goes to see when having problems with marriage," says Kim Mills, associate executive director of public and member communications. "[They] don't see [psychologists] as people who can help to change human behavior in a way that might affect global warming, or even what the dashboard of your car looks like. This campaign is intended to draw attention to such issues."

The communications team also promotes various public policy issues on behalf of US psychologists. Typically, the advocacy focuses on educational issues, such as greater funding for behavioral research or getting college students to consider psychology as a major. But sometimes the APA touches on larger public policy issues that other associations might not have addressed.

For example, in 2007 the APA's council passed a resolution calling on the US government to prohibit 19 interrogation techniques that it deemed unethical. It demanded that the Bush administration sign the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, which would effectively ban interrogation techniques like waterboarding, a strategy where water is shot into people's breathing passages to simulate drowning.

"We find it important to use our bully pulpit to the degree we have... to communicate our position that torture is never acceptable," Farberman says.

At a glance

American Psychological Association

President and CEO: Alan Kazdin

Headquarters: Washington, DC

Operating budget: $112 million

Key Titles: American Psychologist, Dreaming, Journal of Experimental Psychology, Psychological Bulletin

PR budget:
$3 million

Comms Team: Rhea Farberman, executive director of public and member comms;
Kim Mills, associate executive director of public and member comms;
Sara Martin, assistant executive director and editor of Monitor on Psychology and gradPsych magazines; Pam Willenz, manager of public affairs

PR Agency:
Vanguard Communications

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