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Childhood obesity in Leeds – a success story shared

Obesity is newsworthy, and for Leeds City Council, childhood obesity was very newsworthy this month. A good news story for the city with a huge media profile, how did Leeds City Council promote this work?

Phil Morcom led communications for the council. He explains the background.

In March I worked with Public Health (PH) colleagues to see how we could make the best of research showing reduced childhood obesity levels in Leeds. With purdah almost on us, we agreed amongst partners to wait before publicising the research, but did initial work to let key stakeholders know, draft key messages, a press release and inform a communications strategy. The research, led by academics and linked with childhood obesity organisation Henry, was to be published in the Journal of Pediatric Obesity.

We knew an academic conference at the end of April at which the research would be shared might lead to interest and so prepared for that, with purdah restrictions pointing go a reactive approach.

Specialist journalists from The Times, Guardian and Daily Mail at the conference were interested in the research, and asked for more information, case studies and comment. Requests came to the council, Henry and the academic presenting the research.

Because public health colleagues had engaged with communications early, the media interest was much easier to deal with. Our potential proactive work was a solid basis for our reactive approach and, because I work with the PH team regularly, I understood the issue and research, and could draw on existing links with the team at Henry and a strong and trusted network already in place.

Access to good case studies held by Henry and PH colleagues, allowing media to speak to ‘real people’ who could tell their story made a huge difference. Our lead elected member, Director of Public Health and the head of the programme actively supported the rapidly move from a proactive to reactive communications strategy. Agreed spokespeople were briefed and made available at short notice.

Following The Guardian, Times and Daily Mail publishing their articles on Wednesday, broadcast and other print media began calling from 7am to follow up. From BBC Radio 4 Today to ITN, Sky and local media, calls came in at a furious pace and LCC comms colleagues helped field calls. It was clear a press opportunity to allow the interested media channels to all access comments from our key spokespeople and case studies would be ideal and hard work by colleagues in our public heath team and children’s centres paid huge dividends. They sourced a venue, case studies and staff who could speak about our work with expertise. Having previously worked with the team I knew I could rely on them to be effective spokespeople.

Teamwork saw us providing journalists from national broadcast channels with a chance to chat with parents, film children and hear from experts. Journalists from the Sun and Mirror also attended, with local media. At the same time as dealing with media on the ground, I liaised with Henry staff to ensure we weren’t treading on each other’s toes with enquiries.

Results? The profile for the work we have done has shot up. Henry have had many enquiries about how they can help other areas and LCC are getting requests to share good practice. We’ve had enquiries from New Zealand to Germany, with documentary teams keen to follow up. Families found taking part really positive – if exhausting! The Health Minister tweeted about the story, as did celebrity chef and healthy food campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Radio and TV ran the story all day, from morning phone-ins and drive time news, to the major news programmes. Follow-up articles appeared across broadcast, digital and print media. Social media was awash with tweets and Facebook posts. And just about every article and post was positive!

What will this mean? What will be the outcomes? We hope good practice is shared and more children will not be obese, growing up to live longer, healthier lives – not just in Leeds but far beyond.

What helped most to make the media opportunity a success?

  • Good relationships with people involved – from participants to academics.
  • Teamwork, as people came together to enable the story to be told and council colleagues, Henry and families mucked in to support.
  • Good understanding of the issue, familiarity with the team and trust.
  • Pre-existing material developed for proactive work.
  • Great case studies and spokespeople quickly available.

What could have gone better?

  • Given more time, other partners in our obesity prevention work could have been more involved.
  • Using a hashtag to share the story to improve tracking, evaluation and sharing.

Elections and all that

Opening the doors to Panorama


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