Taking the flak for the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic, Public Health England has had a demanding year. As the public health agency looks to transition to the National Institute for Health Protection, The Drum talked to incoming director of marketing Alexia Clifford.
It’s been a tumultuous year for Public Health England (PHE), to say the least. Its mission to ‘protect and improve the nation’s health’ has been tested to the limit from the moment Covid-19 hit UK shores back in late January, while its very existence came under attack in August when ministers announced plans to replace it with a UK-wide ‘health protection’ institute.
As the Department for Health and Social Care’s executive agency, this year PHE has played a pivotable role in preventing the pandemic, developing Covid-19 tests and collecting crucial data on cases and deaths. Even its campaign work has been coronavirus focused. Despite this, ministers argue that the pandemic has unmasked the public health agency’s weaknesses.
“To say it has been an interesting year is an understatement of the century,” says Alexia Clifford, deputy director of marketing at PHE. Clifford is due to move up to the director of marketing role this month, replacing Sheila Mitchell who held the role for 13 years. During her six years as deputy, Clifford led PHE’s flagship social marketing campaigns including Change4Life,Stoptober and Be Clear on Cancer, which has saved hundreds of lives through earlier diagnosis.
Clifford enters the role at a pivotable moment in PHE’s history, as it transforms into the National Institute for Health Protection. The UK government has said the brand new organisation will focus primarily on public health protection and infectious disease capability, but ministers are yet to set out their plans for the wider health work carried out by PHE beyond infectious diseases, posing further questions over the future of celebrated programmes like Change4Life.
Whatever this disbandment means for PHE’s marketing department, Clifford says the team is “absolutely focused on the job in hand“, which is “preventing ill health and reducing health inequalities“. That is the “absolute focus and absolute priority“, she says, adding: “It’s a period of change, but we’re continuing to work together with our partners and we’re really focused on protecting and improving the nation’s health.”
In the last year, PHE has seen its wider public health work focus entirely on pandemic-related causes. “Everything we’re doing now is looked at through the lens of Covid-19. We have to be absolutely on top of perceptions and awareness, and research more than ever to see where people’s attitudes are at.”
Last week, PHE unveiled the latest iteration of its ‘Every Mind Matters’ platform in reaction to the insight that over two-fifths (41%) of children and young people said they were more lonely than before lockdown, with more than a third admitting they were more worried (38%), more sad (37%) or more stressed (34%).
Every Mind Matters emerged back in October 2019, devised as a major push to address adult mental health. “Attitudes and awareness have moved on massively in the past 10 years, where there’s been a massive shift in mental health in stigma. We wanted to create action by giving people tools to move up the steps to look after their mental health.” It was marked with the first-ever NHS-backed mental health campaign, which included a short film written by Richard Curtis and directed by Rankin.
The campaign included an interactive quiz ‘Your Mind Plan‘, which Clifford says has been completed over 2 million times, exceeding its target. She also says the satisfaction rate when people do use the campaign materials was high, with 87% of users reportedly taking positive action to look after their mental health after using the website.
“Since then the context has changed massively. We’ve adapted the context around Covid-19 and adapted the resources to make them contextually relevant. So we produced new content online around specific issues around Covid-19.” The interactive quiz itself is now tailored for the outbreak as PHE finds ways to improve people‘s mental health during this tumultuous time.
Back in June, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson formally launched the government’s initiative to reduce obesity levels with a video with him walking his pooch up and down a freshly cut lawn, telling the UK public how he’d dropped a stone since recovering from coronavirus.
The campaign was devised in response to a PHE study that discovered that being classed as medically obese increased the risk of death from coronavirus by 40%. “We look at all the health impacts data and obesity has always been a major issue and you can see the trends there. There’s a lot of interest in the link between obesity and Covid-19 risk, and that was something we really wanted to land quite clearly with people. To be clear about science.” The war on obesity included a major crackdown on promotions in stores of foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) and a 9pm watershed on junk food ads.
Amid Covid-19, people have had to rapidly adopt new behaviours out of necessity, but how easy is it for PHE to convince people? “More than ever, getting the basics right is absolutely crucial. Research the research. Brilliant creativity and getting the insights right, with really clear propositions can help to facilitate behaviour change.“
Granted, PHE is providing support during an unprecedented time, but Clifford explains that to get the tone right, the team does lots of audience insight research. ”We’re constantly testing different ways in which we’re working with experts in this field as we develop content. The strength of the recent campaign [Every Mind Matters] is that we worked with a whole host of charities who have so much expertise.”
While the future of PHE is yet to be fully disclosed, with Covid-19 cases in the UK starting to rise once more, Clifford says her team is focused on preventing ill health and reducing health inequalities in a pandemic England.