How can health campaigns cut through the noise? | Elise Barker

Elise Barker

Communications campaigns must combine innovation with tried-and-tested techniques to help alleviate the pressure on NHS services, says NHS Arden & GEM Commissioning Support Unit’s associate director of communications, engagement and marketing.

The public faces a complex and constant barrage of campaign and sales messages from countless different organisations, meaning public health campaigning must continuously innovate to ensure vital messages about self-care, prevention and appropriate use of health services cut through the noise. This is especially true during the colder months when pressures on emergency services are particularly acute.

Having just experienced the hottest days of the year so far, winter feels thankfully distant. But when it comes to social marketing in the NHS, proactive campaigning to change how the public behaves when accessing emergency services during winter is a year-round responsibility. 

We’ve been running successful winter health campaigns for our clients for some time, building on national campaigns such as ‘Under the Weather?’ and ‘Stay Well’. Working across large areas on behalf of multiple clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) provides an opportunity to deliver cost-effective campaigns at scale. But the real success comes in tailoring our approach and messages to reach specific groups of people.

Healthcare campaigns are becoming increasingly sophisticated in how they use social media and online marketing to reach target audiences. From fun animations with a serious message to precise, demographically focused social media advertising, there are plenty of tools at our disposal which can broaden the reach of a public awareness campaign without busting the budget. 

But in our experience, multi-channel approaches that combine the power of mass engagement tools with personal, tailored activities reap the best rewards.

There is still much to be said for the more traditional social marketing activities, not to mention face-to-face engagement. For example, as part of our Stay Well campaign for 2016/17, we worked with sporting personalities and local ambassadors who could share their personal experiences to help improve engagement. 

Professional boxer Matt Windle, who has asthma, featured in ‘Fight the flu’ videos giving top tips for staying well over winter, while players and coaches from West Bromwich Albion and Northampton Town football clubs shared their thoughts on the importance of getting the flu jab in order to stay match fit. This helped to put a face to the campaign and demonstrated that even those who are normally fit and well should consider preventative steps to avoid flu.  

Similarly, to enhance messages around prevention and self-care, we worked with national celebrity, Ella Mills (Deliciously Ella), who provided recipes for a Stay Well ‘Winter Warmers’ recipe book. This collaboration boosted the campaign profile and gave people something of value to keep. As well as health-boosting meal suggestions, the handout also contained helpful information on self-care as well as advice on which service to contact for further help, depending on your circumstances.

Mindful that some people have difficulty accessing services because of language barriers, or are unlikely to pick up information from traditional channels, NHS communications teams must consider different techniques to reach those who might otherwise be missed. 

Our public health campaigns often include visits to supermarkets and shopping centres to engage with the general public. When it comes to winter pressures, we conduct a number of outreach sessions with seldom-heard groups, working with Age UK, as well as deaf, migrant and Afro-Caribbean communities. This helps to highlight the particular challenges they face, answer any queries and provide information about where to go to get appropriate support, should they need it.  

Following the outreach sessions run during the latest Stay Well campaign, more than 90 per cent of participants subsequently felt confident about which service to access for different illnesses, and how to access that service.

But how do we know we are having an impact more broadly? Campaign evaluation is notoriously challenging, and never more so than in healthcare. However strong your campaign, A&E attendances can spike due to an unexpectedly harsh winter, and self-care can be affected by all manner of communication campaigns. 

Outputs can be measured, such as press coverage, social media engagement and website visits. However, we are also making strides in linking campaign activity to outcomes, such as assessing the impact on the take-up of flu jabs among at risk groups.

This year we have seen some positive outcomes. During the campaign period, there was an increase in flu vaccination uptake for the over-65s and pregnant women, reversing a three-year downward trend for nine out of 12 CCGs involved in the campaign. In addition, the use of the NHS 111 service has continued to grow steadily. But there is no room for complacency. As we complete the evaluation for this year, our attention is already turning to how we build on and take forward the Stay Well campaign in 2017/18. 

By working with partners across large footprints, CCGs can benefit from more cost-effective campaigns, but there is no substitute for a tailored approach. As part of our drive to deliver best value, communications teams must balance the desire to deliver cost-effective campaigns with the need to change behaviour through meaningful activities which resonate with target audiences.

Elise Barker is associate director of communications, engagement and marketing at NHS Arden & GEM Commissioning Support Unit. Follow the organisation on Twitter @ardengem

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