Background: The Appalachian Regional Commission (www.arc.gov) is an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments focusing on 420 counties across the Appalachian Region. ARC's mission is to innovate, partner, and invest to build community capacity and strengthen economic growth in Appalachia to help the Region achieve socioeconomic parity with the nation.
Program background: Appalachians experience high rates of chronic disease and mortality from the major causes of death, particularly in the region’s economically distressed counties and among the 35-64 age group.1 Between 2011-2015, 17 percent of Appalachia’s working age population was not covered by health insurance. In 33 counties across the Region’s 420 county footprint, the uninsured rate spiked over 25 percent during the same time period.2 ARC understands that there a link between the Region’s health and its economic growth. Health projects funded by ARC focus on community-based efforts to encourage health-promotion and disease-prevention activities with an eye towards economic growth. Discussions of health disparities in Appalachia and of the region in general, often accompany negative stereotypes and images such as that “Appalachians are miserable, lazy, or missing teeth”. The region has seen a recent increase in media attention, including many news stories on the opioid crisis that propagate these stereotypes and are negatively received by Appalachian communities. One of ARC’s most important communication’s objectives is to highlight emerging and/or successful interventions and innovations in an attempt to break negative and inaccurate narratives about the region. This objective is accomplished through ARC’s Strategic Communication Plan.
Evaluation Methods and Results: ARC’s Strategic Communication Plan focuses on the concept of regionalism, being inclusive of all 13 states and mindful of the differences between communities, but also aware of the unique opportunities and strengths afforded by approaching opportunities and challenges from a regional perspective. It also reflects ARC’s mission for economic development. ARC leverages partnerships and employs key communication tools, including social media channels and a weekly newsletter, in the execution of this strategy. The weekly newsletter boasts a consistently high open-rate and is the subject of frequent praise among constituents throughout the region.
Implications for research and/or practice: ARC’s communication success can be attributed to focusing messaging on the work being done by partners in the region, rather than the efforts of the agency. Relationship building has been another critical component of successfully working in Appalachia. ARC has seen that it takes time and sincere effort to earn the trust necessary to create a receptive audience to its messages. Without this trust, even those messages aimed at improving the health and quality of life of Appalachians, may fall on deaf ears. References: (1) http://www.kentuckypress.com/pages/Appalachian_Health_and_Wellbeing.htm; (2) https://www.arc.gov/assets/research_reports/DataOverviewfrom2011to2015ACS.pdf, p. 83