Alex Aiken: Local health service comms has been 'dreadful'

The debates are done, the concessions made and the Health Bill has become law. Alongside the Localism Act this legislation is a significant milestone in the work of the governing coalition and will shape the future of public service communications for years to come.

Alex Aiken: New public health arrangements represent a fresh start for local authorities
Alex Aiken: New public health arrangements represent a fresh start for local authorities

The start of April gives us a year to prepare for the new world of health which come into being in April 2013 but I question whether PR people are ready to take advantage of the opportunities that the health legislation offers. The evidence, so far, is not good.

At a local level the record of health service communications has been dreadful. One now- defunct PCT spent £1m researching public health issues, retaining a costly PR agency and then couldn't agree on a campaign to utilise the research, completely wasting the money.

There have been examples across the country of local health communicators failing to work with councils and running woeful campaigns during the times when budgets were plentiful and staff available.

There were notable exceptions; pregnancy campaigns in Leicester;  healthy living campaigns in Liverpool and co-delivery in Blackburn, but generally the legacy of PCT communications was a triumph of bureaucratic process over delivery.

The new public health arrangements represent a fresh start for local authorities, clinical commissioning groups and the Department of Health. But we need to quickly understand the arrangements and start designing campaigns that will change lives for the better.

The Department for Health has made some important but tentative steps towards closer working with councils who will be involved in the 'Games for Life' initiative this year. There is a consultation group on future structures. There is discussion over a range of issues from handling substance misuse communication to integration of the all embracing 'Change4Life' initiative into local communication.

But significant questions remain to be answered. Clinical Commissioning Groups will need to think about their communications, and few have started to do so.  Health and Well Being boards are sorting out their structure and process but will quickly need to move to consider how effective behaviour change campaigns can deliver their goals by nudging, stoving or exhorting people to lead healthier lives. Currently, communications hardly figures on most agendas.

Council communicators need to recognise the significance of moving public health budgets, which range from £25 to over £100 per person in an area and come up with proposals to use the cash for the good of their communities. Many could design really effective campaigns but the work needs to start now.

The challenge to PR managers is to map out their public health campaigns for 2013, by this September, identifying the goals  and securing the budget necessary to achieve their objectives. In doing so they will set a new agenda for local public service communication.

And for some PR's there is a more personal reason. Under the new arrangements GPs are expected to quiz patients about their drinking habits, all part of the nudge to a healthier Britain. Doctors will be paid extra for giving the advice, but everyone in public relations should be aware that the campaign for healthier lifestyles starts with them.  


Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council

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