Advancing Equity Through Plain Language Public Health Communications in Seattle & King County

Meredith Li-Vollmer, PhD, Office of the Director, Communications, Public Health - Seattle & King County, Seattle, WA


Public Health – Seattle & King County jump-started its plain language improvements with an approach to communications that centers communities of color facing persisting inequities.

Program background:

The development of a community navigator program and place-based teams at the public health department in Seattle & King County resulted in the creation of listening spaces and more frequent input from community partners.

Communications staff meet bi-weekly with leaders and organizations from over 30 ethnic and multilingual groups, including the Black, Latinx, Native, Mexican indigenous, Asian and Southeast Asian, African immigrant, and Arabic-speaking communities. These partners advise the communications team on the issues and health concerns raised in their communities, review content created by the health department, and provide input on what channels and formats best reach their networks. As a result, the communications team has a better understanding of how well the communications materials meet the health literacy, accessibility, and language needs of priority audiences.

Evaluation Methods and Results:

Feedback from community partners led to overhauls of webpage content, notification letters, and outreach materials. The health department now puts more emphasis on video, slides with graphics, and comics as communications methods that better serve communities.

For example, when the community navigators determined that existing messaging about COVID-19 booster shots was too complicated, communications staff trained them how to make short, Tik-Tok-like videos on their phones with simple captioned messages in 13 languages.The resulting videos feature trusted community leaders speaking in terms that work for each community, and the content was ready for posting on social media, messaging apps, and websites.


The revamped communications approach incorporates more review and co-creation practices to create materials that are more culturally relevant and easier to understand.

Plain language written materials have also improved translations. Simple sentence structure, active tense, and familiar vocabulary results in higher quality (and frequently less expensive) translations. Communications staff have worked with a language access team to develop plain language guidance and training for staff. In turn, plain language has also made materials appeal more to all English readers.

Implications for research and/or practice:

This presentation will feature lessons learned from the community navigator program as well as collaborations between the communications and language access teams on health literacy in Seattle and King County, WA. Audience members will hear from Meredith Li-Vollmer, Risk Communication Manager, about the county’s approach to plain language and ways the plain language best practices highlighted by PHCC and Mission Partners have been implemented firsthand to build more effective public health communications.