Tackling Climate Change and Large Scale Public Health Challenges

Impacts of climate change on human health, Indigenous health and wellbeing and celebrating 50 years of the PHAA were key themes of this year’s Australian Public Health Conference, a forum which brings together professionals from a range of disciplines to share knowledge and proactively work to address large scale population and public health challenges.

Learning from past successes in public health was a focus for discussion at the conference. Australia’s response to the AIDS and HIV crisis of the 1980s was used as a reference, as were our world-leading initiatives in addressing tobacco control.  

In examining the public health response to the HIV/AIDs epidemic, some of the crucial turning points that were highlighted included commissioning the highly contentious ‘grim reaper’ television commercial and securing a key contact within the press to champion coverage.

The ‘grim reaper’ campaign is a great example of where the success is based on much more than the ‘what’ – a television commercial. The success is in the ‘how’ – and the ‘how’ is about a very powerful and confronting message, conveyed simple, clearly and with strong visual impact. 

As a marketer, I get excited when I see great public health marketing campaigns. And even more so when it is a social marketing campaign that has had a big impact in changing behaviours and improving health outcomes. 

What I love about the ‘grim reaper’ is that the main message, “prevention is the only cure we have” was underpinned by a very strong and clear insight, being that HIV/AIDs infection can happen to anyone and all individuals need to take responsibility. 

In our experience in public health and social marketing campaigns, insights based on co-design or community input are essential for strong outcomes, as it is upon these that very clear messages are built and strong visual creatives can be developed. Professional creative development and production are crucial components for cut-through because they convey authority and trustworthiness. And those community insights are also the secret to developing a strong media strategy and ultimately, effective campaign outcomes.  

Our own papers at the Public Health conference were well received. Both papers presented aspects of our work on a large scale RCT addressing childhood obesity, which is being run through the University of Sydney. One paper focused on the design process that led to a popular and effective series of educational booklets for parents, and the second paper discussed the successful translation and cultural adaptation of the printed resources for Chinese and Arabic parents. The role of community insights and stakeholder input was paramount in these projects too. 

The conference was timely – occurring in the days leading up to the second student climate change protests. The impacts of climate change on human health range from deaths and hospitalisations as a result of extreme temperatures, to the changing spread of disease due to altered climatic conditions, to potential food security challenges. Tackling climate change is therefore of the utmost importance, as it poses one of the most challenging large scale public health issues of our time.

It was inspiring and thought-provoking to reflect on the learnings of other public health challenges where significant successes have been achieved, and to consider how we can apply our public health marketing and communications capabilities to contribute to the challenges of tackling climate change.

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