What makes a good health communication campaign? (updated)

Update 24 May: Congratulations to 56 Dean Street with G-A-Y Bar for winning the Health Communication Campaign of the Year 2012 for their campaign, A World Record for World Aids Day. The other shortlisted nominees, Macmillan Cancer Support, Cornwall Partnership NHS Foundation Trust with Radio Cornwall, and Whittall Street Clinic in Birmingham were worthy runners up.

One of my current projects is ‘award champion’ for the BMJ Group Awards‘ Health Communication Campaign of the Year. Our distinguished panel of judges (Mark Duman of the Patient Information Forum, Professor Klim McPherson of Oxford University, and Jon Snow of Channel 4 News) have now cast their votes for the winner.

I couldn’t possibly disclose any more about the voting decisions (that’ll have to wait until the awards dinner, on 23 May) but you can read my BMJ feature about the short-listed candidates, here. However, there are some general principles which the judges agreed on, which don’t give anything away:

  • A good healthcare campaign is based on sound science and knowledge of the field. Sounds obvious, but there have been plenty of healthcare campaigns based on good intentions, but rotten science. (NB – I’m speaking generally, not about any of our entries)
  • A good campaign knows its audience, and how best to reach it. It fits the means of communication to the audience, reaching people where they are already, making information easy to access at the point where it’s most needed. Our short-listed campaigns used a wide range of media, from local radio to social media, depending on the target audience. The latest innovation isn’t always the most appropriate.
  • Good campaigns don’t just ‘raise awareness’; they offer people a tangible way of taking beneficial action. That’s beneficial, as in it benefits the person taking it, not the company manufacturing the screening test/medicine/herbal remedy behind the campaign.

Margaret McCartney, a Glasgow GP and prolific journalist, has written extensively about the risks of disease awareness campaigns leading to unnecessary and non-beneficial screening, creating a population of anxious, medically-dependent patients out of a perfectly healthy cohort of people. I snorted with laughter at her piece, ‘A generic press release from [health charity]‘, which perfectly skewered the vacuous nonsense that lands daily in health journalist’s email boxes.

I particularly liked this: ‘We are very happy to announce that [celebrity] is now our spokesperson/ambassador/patron! S/he is willing to be interviewed on the subject of [disease] which s/he had a “scare” about/has had/had a friend who had it/has always been worried about. As you know, s/he is in the news lately because of Big Brother/football spousal injunction/autobiography/launch of own vajazzaling range. ‘

So, a good campaign doesn’t always need a celebrity, although celebrities can be powerful if they tick the right boxes with the audience you’re looking for. I’m happy to report that none of our short-listed campaigns resorted to such ‘one-size-fits-all’ tactics! Do take a look at the short-list, for more pointers to how to run a good health communication campaign.

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