Is your ATSI communication missing a few letters?


We recently had the pleasure of working with a national client to develop a strategy for communicating with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (ATSI) communities about a serious health issue.

The strategy was informed by primary research, which included focus groups with ATSI community members and interviews with health professionals working with these communities.

As part of the research I travelled to Thursday Island to interview health professionals. A recurring theme in the discussions was the cultural inappropriateness of many ATSI health promotion campaigns that also target Torres Strait Islanders. Health professionals and health promotion staff are often sent campaign materials that emphasise Aboriginal people, culture and ways of life. But can we assume that what works for Aboriginal audiences will work for Islanders?

About Torres Strait Islanders

Torres Strait Islanders are people who are native to the Torres Strait Islands – a group of 274 islands found in the 150-kilometer stretch between the tip of Cape York and Papua New Guinea. Torres Strait Islanders are more closely related to the coastal people of Papua New Guinea and are totally separate from Aboriginal people native to mainland Australia.

There are approximately 6,000 Torres Strait Islanders living on the islands, with a further 42,000 living on the mainland, mostly in Townsville and Cairns.

As a water-based community who travel frequently between the islands and the mainland, Torres Strait Islanders respond to very different imagery and visual styles used in communication materials. While Aboriginal people relate to earthy tones and imagery of land-based flora and fauna, Torres Strait Islander people respond to brighter, oceanic colours such as blues and greens and imagery of marine animals such as fish and turtles. These differences are reflected in art produced by both communities – compare the artwork at the Gab Titui Cultural Centre (Torres Strait) with Aboriginal artwork .

Communicating with Torres Strait Islanders

Planning a national campaign that targets ATSI communities? Consider these steps to ensure that your ATSI communication resonates with Torres Strait Islanders:

  • Create different base designs for Aboriginal materials and Torres Strait Islander materials. Include the traditional red, yellow and black in Aboriginal materials, and green and blue to target Islanders.
  • Make sure you understand the lifestyle of islander communities for health promotion messages – their access to health services is very different to mainland communities.
  • Use local imagery and local people in materials not generic images from stock image libraries. If you are commissioning campaign photographs include some Torres Strait Islander people.
  • Talk to the locals – Torres Strait Islanders are very friendly people who I found really open to talking with those who want to engage with them for the positive benefit of the community, such as improving health outcomes.

By David Micallef