News Analysis: PR battle to curb sexual infections

With rates of sexually transmitted infections continuing to spiral, Richard Cann investigates the comms strategies employed by the Government and campaign groups to make the safe sex message hit home

If anyone was in any doubt about the need for the Government and health organisations to increase their efforts to tackle sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among teenagers, the Office of National Statistics has released figures to make them think again.

It showed that new cases of STIs seen in sexual health clinics in the UK almost doubled to 1,332,910 between 1991 and 2001.

While difficult enough to talk to young people openly and effectively about STIs, sexual health organisations also face a variety of barriers.

These include a lack of consistent education in schools, conservative elements in the media and society, limited funding, and the ever present problem that there's always a new generation of uninformed children approaching puberty.

Targeting teenagers

However, Rebecca Gudgeon, associate director at Harrison Cowley PR, which handles comms for the Department of Health, says the major challenge remains talking to teens directly in a way that won't alienate them.

'You have to do it very discreetly,' she says. 'If you try to lecture teens through mainstream media that is not their own it is like whistling in the wind. So we use teenage press, peer media and any places teenagers will be, such as events.'

'The message is about communicating dangers involved with unprotected sex. It has to be about providing information and providing support rather than preaching, or they will switch off.'

The tone of comms is vital, says fpa (formerly the Family Planning Association) comms manager Melissa Dear: 'It is important not to scare people, as this has a negative effect and they tend to just bury their heads in the sand. It is also really important not to be po-faced.'

Despite howls of protests that scuppered a planned collaboration between teen title Sugar and condom brand Durex, teen media remains the core tool for organisations. 'The fpa supports teen magazines wholeheartedly because they really connect with their core audience,' says Dear.

Teen magazines may upset some sections of the community with their brutally direct coverage of teenage sexual issues, but they stand as one of the few trusted information sources for teens on the subject.

Significantly, teen media does not answer direct to the wider community, which can restrict public organisations. 'When you produce material that really connects with young people but is necessarily explicit, you often get mighty condemnation from moral crusaders and right-wing media,' says Dear.

The fpa published a book on puberty, 4 You, last September targeting nine to 11-year-old girls, but it was criticised heavily from members of Harrow's Unification Church who Dear says had not even read the publication.

A spokesperson for the Catholic Church's comms team says: 'Certainly the best way to avoid STIs is not to have sex in the first place. If teenagers follow our advice they have zero risk of getting these diseases.'

Nonetheless, infection rates continue to rise. Emma Charvert, head of comms at Brook, the UK's only sexual health organisation dedicated to under-25-year-olds, says: 'There is a vocal minority who don't believe young people should have full access to information about sexual health. They may be quite vocal but I believe most parents want their children to be properly prepared. We live in a very sexualised culture, but people don't get the facts about sexual health. The feedback we get from young people is the education they do get in schools is too little, too late.'

Brook's strategy is to focus on communicating direct to young people to avoid losing their trust by 'colluding' with adults. But other health groups create strategies for multiple targets.

HIV awareness group Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) recognises lobbying the Government is as important as the programmes they run to talk directly to teenagers. A recent THT study showed 62 per cent of 18 to 22-year-olds complained of insufficient sex education at school, says THT director of comms Genevieve Clark: 'Good sex education works but it is patchy around the UK and it is a bit of a lottery whether teenagers are receiving it.'

Dear says that the fpa is pushing for a compulsory education programme in schools that talks about sexual health in terms of relationships rather than just sex: 'It's not just the ins and outs. It's the whys and wherefores as well.'

Sexual health organisations must also work to raise awareness of the issues with parents and ethnic minority groups that often know as little as their children about STIs, Dear says. She adds that limited funding necessitates a concentration on grassroots campaigns in areas of greatest need, but groups need to simultaneously lobby the Government to push sexual health higher up the agenda, both in terms of education and providing health facilities.

Of course there is no final solution as a new generation of teenagers is always on its way, making it all the more important for the Government to put ongoing systems and resources in place.

Clark illustrates the need for continuing comms strategies: 'There is a whole generation of teenagers that were in nappies the last time the Government did a major HIV public awareness campaign.'

HOW THE GOVERNMENT AND HEALTH ORGANISATIONS CAMPAIGN

- Department of Health: Education programmes run alongside media relations and ad campaigns. Senior press officer David Hands says: 'It's not all about handing out condoms.' The Sex Lottery campaign for Valentine's Day included postcards, washroom posters and spoof cards. Educates primary carers and doctors about developments to sexual health clinics

- fpa: Organises Sexual Health Week, which this year runs from 2 to 8 August. Lobbies to speed up the roll-out of Chlamidea screening clinics, and introduce school education programmes. Runs a variety of sexual health courses for youth, parents and community groups

- Brook: Uses teen titles and advice pages to publicise its clinics, website and phone line. Uses celebrities Mis-Teeq, Sarah Cox and Emma B

- THT: Works with universities, schools, parents and community groups. Uses celebrities including Phil Jupitus.

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