Public Health England marketing director: Our challenges are huge, but I have great hope
A view from Sheila Mitchell

Public Health England marketing director: Our challenges are huge, but I have great hope

Marketing has a major role to play in solving some of the biggest problems of our time, writes Public Health England's marketing director.

As I write, it seems the news is all bad: the plight of the Rohingya Muslims fleeing Burma threatens to turn into a humanitarian crisis; the political rhetoric between the US and North Korea is escalating; there is plenty to worry about in the world. 

Here are the five things keeping me awake at night - and why I'm looking to the future with optimism.

Urgent public health issues

At Public Health England, we are also faced with potential public health crises that, while they may not be headline-grabbing, could have devastating consequences for us all.

Abroad, my team is working with the Caribbean Public Health Agency to prepare for the next wave of Zika Virus.

At home, we’re starting to tackle the threat of antimicrobial resistance. Many people do not appreciate that there is very real and present danger of our current antibiotics ceasing to be effective against bacterial infections; if this is allowed to happen, we could return to a world where routine surgery, and even childbirth, become unsafe.

To educate the public about what they can do to counter this threat, we’ve just launched our "Keep antibiotics working" campaign, which is being widely supported throughout the NHS, but we need more organisations, and individuals, to get on board by becoming antibiotic guardians.

Transforming mental health

After the threat of a global public health crisis, my next big worry is working out how marketing and communications can best support people with mental health needs.

The Prime Minister has unveiled plans to transform mental health support, and a great deal has been achieved by charities like Heads Together (the charitable trust spearheaded by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry). In recent months, many prominent figures have bravely disclosed their own mental health struggles.

This gives us a strong platform to build on, but it’s vital that we get the next phase of marketing and communication right, so that we ensure that we support the one in four of us across our society that do battle daily with everything from workplace stress through to life-threatening mental health issues.  

The impact of inequality

My third night-time worry is health inequality. Many readers of this column will employ their energy, brains and creativity on understanding how to engage with people who have the greatest purchasing power.

But at PHE, our focus is not on the affluent, educated, healthy (or "worried well" as they’re often called by healthcare professionals) but on those with less money, lower levels of education and who are disproportionately likely to suffer from ill health, including type two diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke.

When people have a high degree of psychosocial stress, such as money worries, or worklessness, they can easily submit to what others have called FOFO ("fear of finding out"), where even visiting the doctor can feel too much.

Our challenge is to find ways to engage, inspire, nudge or otherwise incentivise these people into action.

Here we are ably assisted by our many local authority and charity partners, who in recent years have started to join up the local, face-to-face marketing, events and interventions with the national effort, with impressive results.

But there is so much more to do and we are always working with academics, innovating, testing and finding new ways to do this better.

Staying on top of the tech

My fourth big worry is making sure that I, and my team at PHE, keep abreast of developments in technology.

I am blessed with a highly skilled and dynamic team, who have taken PHE’s campaigns from traditional mass media campaigns into sophisticated, hypertargeted programmes that mine people’s digital footprints for insights into their health needs and harvest them into digital behaviour change programmes.

However, I recognise that we are at a generational crossroads in technology: digital platforms could have a game-changing effect on the health of the nation.

But the potential for these super-platforms to dominate homes could go one of two ways. Either the "algorithm" in all its forms - search, news, voice, AR, delivery systems previously unimagined - can be a genuine force for good, engaging people in understanding, monitoring and acting on choices that will make their lives healthier and happier.

Or it could further entrench unhealthy behaviour, as people are served up more of the same, based on their previous, unhealthy, choices. I’d like to see these platforms make an active choice, to be forces for good, especially in health.

Making sure everyone plays their part

My final worry is how to keep the coalitions we’ve built with third parties alive and fresh. PHE has delivered extraordinary successes in delivering partnership added value to the tune of £123m over the past few years.

I applaud the dedication and commitment of those organisations that have come to understand the role and responsibility they play in society and for the good of their customers.

But there are still major organisations that could learn from the best and partner with us to work out how they could take a more active societal role.  

I want to end on a note of optimism. There will always be new challenges to face but we must never forget the progress that has already been made.

We’ve just curated our exhibition of 100 Years of Public Health Marketing, showcasing the value of what we, and our predecessors, achieved, whether that was promoting immunisation in the 1930s, awareness of AIDS in the 1980s, or smoking cessation today.

Just because these issues keep me awake at night, doesn’t mean that I’m not enduringly hopeful about the potential for people, communities and society to make a difference in the future.  

Recently, Richard Curtis addressed our annual public health conference. Talking about the contribution Comic Relief had made to global health, he remarked that "Cynics’ Relief never raised a penny for anyone".

He’s right, of course. So next time you’re lying awake at night, remember to stay positive.

Sheila Mitchell is marketing director at Public Health England and a member of Campaign’s Power 100.