Launching Paper Planes

Whether you’re working in the fluoro-lighted sterility of an operating suite, or dropping into your patient by helicopter, the temptation is to spend all your time focussed on the person in front of you. And you should, of course. But any practitioner realises over time that actually you need to look more broadly than just that patient. This is because the patient in front of you presents in a way that is influenced by everything around them.

So if I’m to really take an interest in the health of the patients I look after, I have to take an interest in the big issues of society. I need to pay attention to the public discussion on obesity, because I’m seeing the results in kids turning up with a blood pressure their grandparents would flinch at. Seeing as those from lower socioeconomic groups have worse health outcomes, I have an interest in seeing what policy is going to diminish inequality.

The better educated have better health outcomes, so education policy matters. And between the potential impact Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations on the cost of medicines here and elsewhere, and the scope for corporations (like big tobacco) to sue governments if some parts get through, I even care about murmured conversations going on in Singapore.

I suspect many medicos develop a latter day interest in public health. Particularly if they, like me, remember their undergraduate training as the constant annoyance that results when someone traps a mosquito behind your eardrum, rather than an inspiring adventure flick where the crusading medical team save a whole island.

Which brings me to drowning, and radio shock jock Kyle Sandilands.

This is a gratuitous aerial shot to make up for mentioning Kyle Sandilands

This is a gratuitous aerial shot to make up for mentioning Kyle Sandilands

The Jobs We Hate

When I work on the helicopter, we don’t mind when we get the call to launch. But we could do without the calls to kids who have drowned. Each summer we’ll get around 20 call outs to kids who have been found in a pool, in the bath or in almost any tiny bit of water you didn’t even imagine. And while we have a great rate of the kids recovering, some don’t. And those jobs are horrible. Particularly since drowning should be preventable, but keeps happening.

So when I was offered the chance to chip in on a public awareness campaign on the topic of drowning I leapt at it.

What I learnt was that launching a public awareness campaign is a little like launching one of the paper airplanes my son is obsessively creating. Flight requires a bit in the way of design, and a lot in the way of favourable conditions (as in  the world’s longest such flight here).

It was all a learning experience. Should you ever get the chance to work with people trying to promote some public health, or perhaps promote your research, there’s a bit in this story.

The Idea

The idea for this particular campaign kicked off with an ad agency. That’s right an ad agency. They heard a story about a kid who drowned in a bath and got interested in spreading a message to remind people that the risk isn’t just in the pool or at the beach. What they came up with was a simple idea to demonstrate how little water is needed. And when they looked around to get information to back up their idea, we ended up meeting.

The Work

It turns out there’s more to a slick looking package than clever editing and a couple of famous faces. There’s tips that those who make a profession of getting ideas to people do that any health advocate or researcher could use.

1. Spreading the Word Is About People

You need to connect to people and you need to work with people. First tip for me was to not miss a connection (and I’ll confess it’s a tip I don’t always follow well). Every time I met with someone on this, they had a notebook. The notebook was a little bit about writing down stats or numbers or thoughts. Mostly it ended up with lots of names. Every name spelt right, titles noted and exactly what they did. I could do with paying more attention to every name I hear. Those names aren’t just about the campaign now, they are for all the things you’ll work on in the future too. You’ll never work in this field alone. The more names the better.

2. Clarity

Medicine sometimes seems to employ language that excludes. Research can be a little the same. A campaign designed to convey an idea in less than a minute is like a highly distilled drink. The purest essence of the idea to get the message through. That sort of clarity is what is required every time you communicate what your project is about. It also means you have to actually understand what your project is about.

The flow on point from this is that when you’re asked to contribute to that clarity, you have to deliver what the project needs, not what tickles your fancy. Delivering a message to order is actually pretty good discipline for anything else you need to write (grants, anyone?). So in this case my job was to provide the stats to provide the back story for the campaign.

3. You can only do what you can do

Lots of good ideas flew about, but ultimately there was only so much time and money available to get it done. This applies to every other promotion, be it a public health campaign or something related to your research. If you can’t come up with an idea without it involving a trained orang-utan and a brass band, you’re not going to get there.

The Cabana Boys had absolutely nothing to work with in terms of resources on this one, and they still managed to get enough people to donate their time to come up with this.

4. There’s always stuff you can’t control

You build a campaign. It’s good. Celebrities are involved. You’ve got a Facebook page. You manage to get in papers. You get a plug on morning breakfast TV. You really hope it lights up, goes viral.

Then one of your celebrities refers to a local journo as a ‘fat slag’, just in the week of your launch. Good luck, positive coverage.

It’s not in the video, but even the bit on The Today Show was shoehorned straight after the release of an entirely different report related to pool safety. Somewhat diluted the message.

If you had a big budget, you could get around that. If you don’t, you can just plug on. This campaign still got somewhere, but I suspect they’d hoped for a bit more.

So what are you left with? Well, hopefully some sort of difference. And there’s always the next one. The next paper plane to launch in the hope of a gentler breeze.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s