Healthcare/Public sector - Forster shapes NHS debate over drink

Campaign: Big Drink Debate

Call to action: debates on alcohol
Call to action: debates on alcohol

Client: Department of Health South East, NHS South Central, NHS South
East Coast
PR team: Forster
Timescale: July 2009-January 2010
Budget: £86,000

Following a request from the Chief Medical Officer for all Strategic Health Authorities to run alcohol debates, Department of Health South East, NHS South Central and NHS South East Coast started to develop a debate for the South East region.


- To generate a debate around alcohol

- To create media coverage to raise the profile of issues linked to alcohol

- To get a sense of the South East's opinion on issues around alcohol consumption and drinking culture

- To hold events to engage the public and representatives from stakeholder services such as the NHS, the police, local government, alcohol industry bodies, and voluntary sector organisations.

Strategy and plan

The team began by researching information already available in the region to put together a report on the extent and nature of alcohol consumption and its health and social impacts. This formed the basis of discussion for two Big Drink Debate events held in Oxford and Maidstone in November 2009. Broadcaster Nicky Campbell was recruited as chair, with panel members made up of representatives from the NHS, police forces and the alcohol industry. To ensure the audience could participate fully in the events, interactive content was developed and handsets provided for live contribution. Collateral for the two events included beer mats with a call to action for audience members to sign up to the manifesto.

A steering group was brought together to guide the event content. The group helped distribute event and manifesto publicity based on a campaign brand designed for the project. Events were also advertised via a South East Big Drink Debate website.

A six-point manifesto was produced focusing on key issues that had come out of the events, such as helping police forces to tackle alcohol-related antisocial behaviour and looking beyond young adults to highlight the risks of regularly drinking above the guidelines in adults of all ages. The manifesto was hosted on the website and members of the public and stakeholders could register their agreement.

Media activity focused on three phases: pre-event promotion to encourage attendance; post-event news stories focusing on the event findings, and case study features and news stories to encourage sign-up.

Measurement and evaluation

The campaign was covered across regional and trade titles, while interviews with key spokespeople were broadcast on BBC South East Politics Show and ITV Meridian.


In total 147 people attended the discussion events, which produced clear recommendations to NHS South Central and NHS South East on the future of the project.

A network of interested parties has been built across the region, many of whom have expressed interest in developing activity based on the South East Big Drink Debate findings.



Sue Nelson, Social marketing director, Kindred and author of Naked Marketing

Forster is a respected agency in the field of behaviour change, especially for difficult social issues. It has clearly fulfilled the brief and is likely to have surpassed the client's expectations.

The Big Drink Debate is an essential first step in gaining commitment and understanding among frontline agencies, dealing with the consequences of excessive drinking. Many of these will have been looking at the issue only from their viewpoint. The two regional events will have demonstrated how their objectives are similar, but also generated recognition of some gaps in provision and thinking. Using a celebrity associated with consumer rights and news broadcasting will have lent gravitas to the debates. It will also have drawn in groups who may otherwise have viewed the approach as too establishment.

But while PR is an important activity in gaining awareness and engaging stakeholders, the next critical step is to achieve actual behaviour change on the ground. This is much more difficult and hugely complex. The British public is in denial, and we need long-term high profile campaigns that explode the myths surrounding harmful drinking.

Research shows the strategies that gain long-term behaviour change involve sustained investment. They also require messages, approaches and branding that is consistent over time. Let's hope this is part of a master plan to strategically tackle alcohol misuse.

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