Last Friday (13 November) was the deadline for comments on a World Health Organization-commissioned draft final report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. The commission will now meet again to review these comments before finalising its report, which is likely to be presented to the WHO director general early next year.
The day before, the UK’s Committees of Advertising Practice – which sets rules enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority – announced "changes to the advertising rules that will allow, for the first time, advertisers of responsible lifestyle weight loss programmes to make reference to obesity in their advertising, and therefore target people who are obese".
Earlier in the week, weight management company LighterLife UK – a weight-management company established more than 25 years ago – announced the launch of Broccoli and Brains, a twice-yearly magazine that promises "more intelligent solutions to Britain’s obesity crisis", and hopes to reach key influencers including the NHS and the Government. All PR for the magazine is being done in-house.
In its response to the WHO draft report, the charity the World Obesity Federation (WOF) said the report had the "potential to act as leverage to stimulate policy development and implementation around the world", but said it "skirts around commercial interests that promote the current obesogenic environment and make conditions difficult for governments to intervene". It added that there needed to be better acknowledgment of the role of "big food" and "big soda" and a call for policy processes to be free from such conflicts of interests.
Asked by PRWeek to comment on the advertising rule change, WOF policy director Dr Tim Lobstein said: "We wait to see what measures will be put in place to ensure that consumers are not misled. This area is full of bogus claims and exaggerated results, from companies preying on people who are desperate to lose weight."
Rikki Jones director at the agency GCI Health, said: "I certainly believe we as PR professionals should have a bigger role in tackling obesity – we should be looking at this as a great opportunity."
She said that while she understood the concerns around "big soda", it would be wrong to remove their voices from the discussion. "The food and drink industry need to engage and listen to the broader community; what is obviously needed is increased dialogue," she said.
Jones said GCI was increasingly receiving "requests to support different types of innovation in this area - different pockets of the community attempting to do something new", such as a current client that is using MRI scanning to better diagnose metabolic health risks than traditional measurements such as weight and BMI can do.
She said it was important that the health community was able to engage with such commercial innovations rather than be suspicious of their financial interests. She gave the NHS' partnership approach and co-created content in its Change4Life campaign as an example of this.
Challenges of terminology
Kate Pogson, director of health at MHP, said that tackling obesity was a key challenge for healthcare comms – and that the ad rule change showed it was one in flux. "Fundamental challenges lie ahead," she said. "People don’t identify with the word ‘obese’ and there are high levels of both stigma and misunderstanding, which prohibit broader engagement with prevention and then management.
"If we’re really going to tackle obesity as one of the most serious health problems facing the country we desperately need to unpick discussions on the 'management' of obesity from initiatives to 'prevent' obesity, and we need to spend less time blaming and more time engaging people who need help to manage their weight."
A key way in which the Government, brands and their PR partners have been engaging people has been through sport.
Gareth Thomas is a founder of Capella PR, which was shortlisted for a PRWeek UK Award in 2014 for its work with the charity StreetGames around its £53bn 'inactivity timebomb'.
"Sports charities are on the front line of tacking obesity problems by encouraging more people to get moving. Typically, their role is in raising awareness of the problem, but more importantly proposing effective solutions and providing evidence that they’re working," he said.
"Part of PR’s role is also to make getting active more attractive to those who don’t see themselves as 'sporty types'." This was a major element of the lauded This Girl Can campaign, a winner at Cannes this year.
Thomas also pointed out that following nine weeks of consultation earlier this year, UK sports minister Tracey Crouch will announce a new national strategy for sport early next year. Improving health outcomes including tackling obesity was one of the major drivers of this, the consultation paper said.