Building better social networks – a business contribution to public health?

In his recent speech on Public Health, Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley set out his vision for a new Public Health Service. He was supportive of the initiatives like the Change4Life campaign but wanted to see it as a much more locally lead and much more a local social movement, perhaps contributing to the Big Society:

‘….we need a new approach. We have to make Change4life less a government campaign, more a social movement. Less paid for by government, more backed by business. Less about costly advertising, more about supporting family and individual responses.’

Responding to his announcements, some private businesses may wish to consider contributing to this as part of their Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda. However those companies will also be fully aware of the level of public scepticism over the offer of this help.

The Independent Newspaper on Thursday 9 July reported an example of the reaction from health campaigners to Lansley’s speech:

“Health organisations reacted with disbelief. Betty McBride, director of policy and communications at the British Heart Foundation, said: “We wait with bated breath for the fast food merchants, chocolate bar makers and fizzy drink vendors to beat a path to the public health door. Meanwhile, parents and children continue to be faced with the bewildering kaleidoscope of confusing food labels and pre-watershed junk food ads.

“Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said he was “horror-struck” at Mr Lansley’s remarks. “[This is] nothing other than a bare-faced request for cash from a rich food and drink industry to bail out a cash-starved Department of Health campaign. The quid pro quo is that the Department gives industry an assurance that there will be no regulation or legislation over its activities.

“What the UK desperately needs are people willing to stand up to the food and drink lobby, such as Michelle Obama is doing in her anti-obesity campaign in the US, rather than politicians rolling over on their backs in front of the lobbyists as is apparently happening here’

Business involvement may well be widely seen by the public in cynical terms as “guilt money”, and thus may even have negative marketing benefit for companies, putting them off from contributing to the public good.

Is there an alternative approach?

I think there is, based on new research in this field.

Recent research has shown that building relationships are vital to wellbeing as a report on recent research by Brigham Young University in the Guardian on 27 July explained:

“A life of booze, fags and slothfulness may be enough to earn your doctor’s disapproval, but there is one last hope: a repeat prescription of mates and good conversation.

“A circle of close friends and strong family ties can boost a person’s health more than exercise, losing weight or quitting cigarettes and alcohol, psychologists say.

“Sociable people seem to reap extra rewards from their relationships by feeling less stressed, taking better care of themselves and having less risky lifestyles than those who are more isolated, they claim.

“A review of studies into the impact of relationships on health found that people had a 50% better survival rate if they belonged to a wider social group, be it friends, neighbours, relatives or a mix of these.

“The striking impact of social connections on wellbeing has led researchers to call on GPs and health officials to take loneliness as seriously as other health risks, such as alcoholism and smoking.

“We take relationships for granted as humans,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University in Utah. “That constant interaction is not only beneficial psychologically but directly to our physical health.”

What this implies is that a company working in food retailing may want to avoid directly funding nutrition or anti-obesity campaigns which might be seen as cynical or a conflict of interests. It is instead about companies building relationships and social networks and changing the  context through which behaviour happens, which then helps people make better informed personal choices.

Building deeper authentic relationships are exactly what business marketing and branding is all about nowadays. Constructing stronger social networks within poorer communities helps contribute to changing the contexts by which negative behaviours such as obesity develop and are reinforced. This creates levels of sustainability that can actually lead to increased profits as companies respond to the new or better behaviours that are developed and reinforced; and compared to the public sector have the market insight to respond to them more quickly and effectively.

As the Guardian report indicates, irrespective of the specific intervention, it is the social network itself that contributes to individual and community resilience and motivation. Thus focusing on the network building rather than the direct intervention could be better value for money for the public sector, but also for the private sector too. Indeed this more flexible approach is something the private sector might more easily deliver than a public sector, committed as it would be, to specific interventions and specific outcomes.

The private sector is also likely to understand this more easily as this approach to public policy is very similar to the national and local marketing campaigns that companies conduct anyway. This approach may also be one that also wins greater support across the community rather than a company sponsoring an existing part of a campaign like Change4Life.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company


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