Under doctor's orders: Public health and council comms

It may not have carried the huge headlines of benefit caps and the price of beer or cider, but after a string of Government changes and announcements in recent weeks, local authorities across England and Wales are now facing up to one of their biggest challenges in decades.

Julia Corkey: There is much work for councils to do on public health
Julia Corkey: There is much work for councils to do on public health

From the start of April responsibility for public health and some health services transferred from the NHS to local government.

The thinking and rationale for this being that health priorities can be joined up and better reflected in other local services such as housing, schools, social services and planning.

It is in fact returning public health to where it was before 1974 and builds on the much earlier work of those reforming Victorians around providing decent housing and better sanitation.

Whilst this is a huge challenge, it is also an opportunity – especially at a comms level.

A lot of the work we do as communicators is about changing or enhancing perceptions, and in public health the aim is very often to try and change behaviours to allow people to live a healthier life.

Although subtly different, both go hand in hand and this is the reason that effective communication for public health can actually make sure that the changes implemented this April can be a great success.

Comms teams across the UK, including at Westminster, have an extra chance to help shape better lives for residents in the areas they serve, and make a real difference to the communities that people live in. But are we ready?

The majority (58%) of the public, according to a Populus poll, think that local councils should be responsible for public health matters. However, only 40% said they would trust public health messages on a council website.

The public are far more likely to trust information from their GP (75%) or the Department of Health website (63%). There is clearly work to do in building trust in health messages from local councils but will councils give it the attention it needs.

Only half (53%) of local authorities heads of communications, according to an LGcommunications survey, think that public health will be a priority for their organisation this year.

Nine in ten (91%) believe that communication campaigns play a vital role in changing perceptions and attitudes on public health, but only 15% think they will have sufficient resource to do so.

There is much work to do. In the next 12 months authorities will unpick what our new responsibility involves, and how the various elements fit into the services that councils already provide. Councils will have to invest in communications to deliver public health outcomes that save in the long-term not just money but lives.

This is at a time when government is yet again questioning the value of what they see as 'propaganda on the rates'.

At first, the role of comms will be to ensure that people are informed about the changes and what those changes mean to each individual.

This exciting new period will move quickly, and it will be up to professionals in our industry to branch out even further into the field of behaviour change.

The costs associated with dealing with preventable poor health whether obesity, diabetes or heart disease and the knock-on consequences such as the inability to hold down work are of course well documented and must act as a further impetus for change.

Comms teams can therefore be in the business of not just improving lives but also saving the public sector scarce resources.


Julia corkey is director of comms and strategy for Westminster City Council.

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