Prevention is better than cure

The NHS is increasingly turning to campaigns that try to prevent the public from becoming ill. Gemma O'Reilly looks at five such projects and the strategies employed.

Prevention is better than cure

From drinking and smoking to flu jabs and cervical cancer inoculations, the NHS has ramped up its preventive health campaigns in the past year to try to reach the public before they become patients.

The number of campaigns is set to grow following the national review of the NHS led by Lord Ara Darzi earlier this year. Primary care trusts (PCTs) will for the first time be judged on their ability to connect with the public, which means changing their role from helping sick people get better to keeping people healthy in the first place.

To achieve this the NHS has recently also begun using social marketing as a way of reaching specific target groups.

'Social marketing is the most powerful tool in the NHS communications box,' believes Say Communications director Stefi Rucci. 'When it comes to changing behaviour, engaging audiences through peer influence and non-judgmental relevance works.'

InHealth MD Julian Tyndale-Biscoe agrees with Rucci and says NHS organisations are tailoring campaigns to focus on the highest risk groups: 'This means segmenting the population to find a target group, understanding this group's beliefs and how it learns behaviour, then devising a tailored message and delivery chain.'

Tyndale-Biscoe cites an example of Brent PCT, which used teenage peer groups to get safe-sex messages across to high-risk teenagers.

Here, PRWeek presents five case studies that illustrate how the NHS is targeting the public in an attempt to keep them healthy, and how some agencies have adopted social marketing techniques to better communicate with target groups.

- Watch Bell Pottinger director Claire Cater talking about social marketing at: (Produced in association with Markettiers4DC)

HPV Vaccine

Campaign: HPV vaccination programme introduction
Client: Department of Health
Agency: Consolidated PR
Timescale: May 2008-ongoing


The national rollout of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine given to young girls to prevent cervical cancer began in September. Consolidated PR was called in to run a campaign informing parents and daughters of the key facts and to encourage them to discuss the vaccine together. The campaign was aimed at girls aged between 12 and 13 and at their parents, particularly mums.

Strategy and plan

A positive tone was proposed for the vaccine launch, championing the cancer prevention message. The main coverage was scheduled for the first week of September to coincide with the advertising launch and new school term. Consolidated won the account in May and began media briefings, targeting media GPs and long lead lifestyle magazines. A strong relationship with cervical cancer charity Jo's Trust was established. Its help was imperative to secure case studies of women who have experienced cervical cancer. A briefing pack for PCTs was also created to ensure their communications teams were up to speed with the launch activity.


In July, an episode of Dispatches featuring journalist and author Jane Moore focused on the vaccine. Consolidated worked closely with the Department of Health's press office to monitor the impact on blogs and the wider media to adapt messaging. In the same month, the vaccine selection was announced, as well as the move to offer the vaccine to 17- to 18-year-old girls, resulting in more news coverage ahead of the launch. The vaccination is a three-stage injection so Consolidated's aim is to maintain momentum in the media until March/April 2009. Consolidated is currently running a parallel campaign to target 17- to 18-year-old girls who are also being offered the vaccine this year as part of the catch-up programme.

Sensible Drinking

Campaign: Know Your Limits
Client: Department of Health
Agency: Fishburn Hedges
Timescale: May 2008-ongoing


Bigger glass sizes and stronger alcoholic content mean many adults are confused about how much they are drinking. The campaign aimed to make adults aware of their intake - both the number of occasions they drink in a typical week and the units they consume - and of the NHS recommended limits.

Strategy and plan

Advertising portrayed units in a number of different drinks, showing for example that a typical glass of wine might now contain three units, not one. The message was 'units all add up'. The PR element was designed to magnify this message and bring it to life. Fishburn Hedges undertook consumer research to produce results it could use for stories. The finding that 77 per cent of drinkers did not know how many units were in a glass of wine was the lead statistic for the May launch, backed up with case studies. To combat media scepticism, a leaflet describing the science behind alcohol units was sent to 850 journalists with a letter from the public health minister on launch day.


The launch achieved widespread coverage: 25 national press, 108 radio and 22 separate showings on TV, including GMTV and BBC Breakfast. Drinking diaries of ordinary people also secured a double-page spread in the Daily Express and a large feature on BBC News Online.

Stop Smoking

Campaign: The Great No Smoking Day Challenge
Client: Waltham Forest NHS Primary Care Trust
Agency: 90TEN Healthcare
Timescale: February-March 2008


Research conducted in 2006-07 showed 24 per cent of the UK population smoke, while its prevalence in Waltham Forest is estimated at 31 per cent. The 90Ten Healthcare team was asked to engage local smokers to take up the challenge to quit for a week, and charged with encouraging smokers to seek support by attending one of four drop-in centres.

Strategy and plan

Waltham Forest's stop smoking team and 90TEN Healthcare used social marketing techniques to engage smokers and motivate them to quit. An interactive theatre group was chosen to present improvisational scenes at the local town hall, illustrating the challenges that smokers face while trying to break the habit. The audience was motivated to quit smoking for a week and seek additional support from one of Waltham Forest PCT's four drop-in centres. Free nicotine replacement therapy was made available and participants could talk to specialist advisers from the drop-in clinics.


Almost one million opportunities to see were achieved in 11 local publications including thelondonpaper and Waltham Forest Guardian. At the end of the week more than half the group returned to share their progress, with 87 per cent cutting down by at least 90 per cent, and half quitting completely.

Preventing Obesity

Campaign: Delivering a Healthy Future
Client: Cornwall and Isles of Scilly PCT
Agency: Freshwater
Timescale: 2006-08


Diseases related to being overweight or obese cost the NHS in Cornwall £150m a year. The challenge was to find ways of encouraging residents to make healthy choices and tackling problems such as obesity among the public in Cornwall.

Strategy and plan

Freshwater's public healthcare division helped Cornwall PCT devise a social marketing strategy that engaged the population in a search for the best ideas to tackle health challenges. The process included public Question Time-style events and a series of parliamentary select committee-style hearings in which patient groups, voluntary organisations and local businesses put forward their views on reducing obesity. Different approaches to promoting healthy eating were discussed at the events.


The exercise led to a number of successful initiatives such as the Healthy Schools Programme, which involves healthier school meals and lunchboxes, breakfast clubs and more physical activity for school children. The initiatives aimed to make children more aware of what they were eating and the benefits of eating more healthily. Another initiative was a programme of personalised support in which trainers employed by the NHS helped individuals to achieve a healthier weight. The social marketing initiative won an award at the NHS Health and Social Care Awards this year.

Avoiding Influenza

Campaign: Catch It, Bin It, Kill It
Client: Department of Health
Agency: The Red Consultancy
Timescale: November 07-June 08


The Department of Health asked The Red Consultancy to raise awareness of good respiratory and hand hygiene to help curb the spread of germs that cause colds, flu and other viruses. The brief focused on spreading the department's 'Catch It, Bin It, Kill It' advertising messages, highlighting the importance of using tissues to cover coughs and sneezes, disposing of them afterwards and washing hands regularly.

Strategy and plan

The Red team staged a giant human sneezing nose at Trafalgar Square to launch the campaign. The event involved 50 actors coming together to form a giant hand and nose with a tissue. They then dispersed into the crowds to distribute campaign-branded tissues and stickers. Other activity included a tissue training day at the Women's Institute headquarters at Denman College. It was hosted by Professor Lindsey Davies from the Department of Health and included interactive sessions and presentations by TV celebrity Aggie MacKenzie and Professor Ron Eccles of the Common Cold Institute.


The launch event generated print and broadcast coverage including BBC Breakfast and Metro. The Red team's work with Eccles also achieved coverage in Prima magazine - Eccles went into a family home to analyse germ hot spots and provide advice and recommendations.

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