“Public health is everyone’s responsibility and there is a role for all of us, working in partnership, to tackle these challenges.”
Andrew Lansley CBE MP, Secretary of State for Health, March 2011
Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in the National Social Marketing Centre’s Behavior Change and Corporate Responsibility Conference in London. While there, I was treated to a number of engaging presentations from leaders in the public and private sectors, and I enjoyed the lively discussion about the importance of corporate involvement in solving the world’s most pressing social challenges (something I personally strongly support).
Regarding this latter point, one presentation in particular, has really stuck with me. It was Tabitha Brufal’s discussion of the goals, structure, and activities to date of the U.K. Department of Health’s Public Health Responsibility Deal.
The Public Health Responsibility Deal is the U.K. government’s initiative to engage corporations in committing to specific actions that support public health goals within the alcohol, food, physical activity, and “health at work” arenas. As can be expected, the Responsibility Deal has not been free of criticism, with some detractors saying that the motives of corporate partners aren’t “purely altruistic.”
My response: why do they have to be?
If we lived in a world without wine and beer, without chocolate and cheese, and without televisions, movie screens and laptops, perhaps we would be healthier. But that is not the world we live in. For most of us, these “pleasures” surround us, every day. We work long hours, care for children and aging parents, and try to find time for friends and leisure activities.
Against this backdrop, it’s easy to over-indulge and under-exercise. Initiatives that make it easier, more accessible, and more enjoyable to make healthier choices are critically important. And that’s where the corporate sector, their marketing muscle, and their “products” can contribute.
The companies participating in the Responsibility Deal to date have pledged to make fundamental changes in their products, in their workplaces, and in their marketing practices. Alcohol manufacturers are reformulating products to lower the alcohol content, and encouraging retailers to promote these lower alcohol versions. Food manufacturers are reducing salt, trans fats, and calories in their products. Companies are offering workplace smoking cessation programs, health checks, and physical activity opportunities — and they are stocking their on-site cafeterias with healthier foods and supporting community-wide initiatives to promote active travel (e.g., biking, walking) to/from work.
It makes sense that so many of these efforts involve re-imagining a product or service… after all, products and services are the lifeblood of corporations. But what struck me so clearly last week was how truly critical it is for the private sector to be encouraged to create innovative new products and services that make it more accessible — and more enjoyable — for all of us to make healthier choices every day. And how crucial it is for public health leaders to invite corporate leaders to sit at the same table, share goals, and identify opportunities to collaborate and achieve a meaningful impact.
Sure, companies will likely reap some benefits from this collaboration that are not directly related to the public health challenge at hand. But isn’t this “value exchange” one of the cornerstones of social marketing? Don’t we promise benefits like: in exchange for choosing fruit over candy you will feel better, have more energy, lose weight, etc.?. Or, as seen in action at the conference: in exchange for your active participation in this afternoon’s discussion, we’ll grab a pint across the street at the end of the day.
In my view, the world’s most challenging public health issues will never be solved unless all parties with a role to play come together and truly collaborate. It’s time for us to look through a different lens, focusing on where the goals and objectives of the public and private sectors intersect. It’s a win for individuals struggling to make healthier choices. It’s a win for society and the public’s health. And it’s a win for corporations seeking to differentiate themselves from their competition, create innovative products and services, and grow their business.