£85,000 a month is a lot of money. When government is cutting spending in all walks of life, especially marketing, £85,000 a month for a PR agency is even more money.
But, that’s what the Department of Health is looking to invest in trying to make the nation healthier.
In doing this, it will merge Change4Life, anti-smoking and two new campaigns aimed at the young and the elderly into one ‘super PR campaign’.
The communications approach is a simple one – engage with people not on one issue as in the past, but on a range of topics which will impact on their ‘life stage’.
But, as I started to discuss with Sarah Wrixton from Salix in a PR Week video podcast, ‘life stage communications’ is the tip of a very political iceberg and will face (at least) three major challenges.
1.The end of the NHS
Let’s face it. This is the real objective here. If you educate people to help themselves and their communities and make people healthier, you don’t need hospitals, doctors and nurses. Which is just as well, as there won’t be many left.
The successful PR agency will need to show that they can some how separate the public health debate – often fronted by the country’s most trusted brand, the NHS – from the actual provision of local health services which are in for some pretty drastic cuts and restructuring under the Coalition’s plans.
2. Territorial warfare
Any government department is filled with civil servants, fearing they are next to be ‘cut’, clinging onto territory. It looks like this brief has been issued with a very narrow term of reference (i.e. PR), has ruled out doing much mass media advertising (yet has just launched an anti-smoking TV campaign) and is not integrated with what partner organisations are already doing. It appears that, before Sam Lister, the new DH head of communications, starts the communications team want to have signed, sealed and delivered him an agency and a work programme.
The successful agency will need to staff-up and prove themselves fast – not just to secure their future, but that of the clients who appoint them.
3. Not enough nudging
PR and communications can help change behaviour, but real change is helped by mixing national communications with local toolkits for the NHS, charities, schools, religious oranisations to deliver. This all requires close co-ordination and also ensures that any national action can be followed up by more tailored local outreach – delivering bespoke ‘nudges’ to different groups.
The successful agency will also need to show they have grasped how local partnerships can be delivered – and that a flexible but carefully planned messaging structure is delivered to take different audience groups on the health journey and the nudges planned on.
The ideal solution to address all three concerns would be for the whole public health communications strategy to be outsourced to a newly created social enterprise (let’s call it Health4Life). Health4Life would be backed by charities and partners, staffed by communications and regionally based public health professionals who are free to use the most effective strategies in order to deliver on government targets.
This means a joined up national approach, regional delivery and real accountability – if Health4Life doesn’t hit targets it doesn’t get funding. By embedding partnership working in this model, the organisation would also be free to augment government money by seeking investment from sponsors and partners to deliver ‘bigger’ campaigns. And it would be free from political interference.
Sadly though, in politics and communications, things are often far from ideal and it would be a brave agency indeed which suggested this approach to the Department for Health.