There are some simple, self-perpetuating reasons why dementia has not been a campaigning health issue with real cut-through. It is a complex process of brain deterioration that continues to confound science. It requires massive research investment. Its sufferers, by the nature of the disease, are not an army of vocal campaigners. And with little sight of sunny uplands, it is something society has preferred not to contemplate.
Yet as the population ages – with one in three people over 65 now likely to die with dementia – how do you help build a compelling level of engagement? A strategy can be found via another harrowing disease: Aids. In the early 1990s the outlook was similarly bleak – there was plenty of public anxiety and some powerful supporters, but few answers and a stifling level of stigma. And yet, two decades later, a brighter future is visible.
So it was that communicators on dementia looked to the successes regarding HIV/Aids as the world’s health leaders met in London last month. Eighteen months after David Cameron set out a challenge to improve dementia research, diagnosis and care and societal awareness, the PM used the UK’s presidency of the G8 to convene only the second summit on a health condition (the first was HIV). In doing so, dementia was positioned not only as a health crisis, but also a social and economic one.
Those at the summit – including ten health ministers, the World Health Organization and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and leaders from science, business and the charitable sectors – agreed an ambitious plan to boost research funding and scientific co-operation and introduce a global dementia envoy (again like HIV), as well as a programme of meetings for 2014. One scientist put the day’s importance as second only to Alois Alzheimer profiling the disease a century earlier. Excited rhetoric perhaps, but it focused minds on moving a Cinderella condition into the mainstream: if the world could do it with HIV, why not dementia?
The challenge of building a dementia campaign has generated collaboration across government comms too, alongside an important relationship with the Alzheimer’s Society. The Department of Health, Cabinet Office and Number 10 teams partnered across the piece. Comms teams at the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have been integral to developing international and business relations and the Ministry of Justice’s design team provided summit branding. Meanwhile government health agencies are working to improve diagnosis rates and build a social movement to get a million people signed up as "dementia friends", including the marketing expertise of Public Health England, RLM Finsbury supremo Roland Rudd and ad agency DLKW Lowe.
Such collaboration should become the norm for the Government Communication Service, which launches this month to build standards and share best practice. If, as the G8 agreed, the world is to mount a fightback against dementia, then no expertise can go to waste – and this applies to comms too.
Sam Lister is director of comms at the Department of Health