What, and who, makes a HSE health behaviour campaign

Aghna Harte, Head of Campaigns, HSE Communications  

The HSE Programmes and Campaigns team, part of HSE Communications, has been creating evidence based, effective social marketing campaigns for many years, and long before most of the current team, myself included, was here.

The purpose of our team is to use evidence and insight to create campaigns that help people to navigate the health service and improve their health and wellbeing.

What this means is that we listen carefully to people, understand their needs and work with our agencies, communications and service colleagues to craft and deliver campaigns that help people – with information, with support and with motivation – to live healthier lives. It’s hugely rewarding work.

We are often asked how we agree to create a campaign, what our decision making process is, so I’m going to share what we think of when we’re working with a HSE service or programme to understand if a campaign is the right communications tool for them.


The work of the team

The team deliver about 20 campaigns in a typical year, working with expert teams across the HSE and within HSE Communications. These campaigns have a rich history of effectiveness, and are highly valued by the services that work with us.

Our most visible work is our big, high profile, advertising campaigns. We’re the people who worked closely with Laura Brennan to bring you the HPV vaccine campaign, encourage you to take back control and quit smoking, provide you with all the condom puns you can think of and established the Dementia: Understand Together social movement, which supports people living with dementia in communities all over Ireland.

We also painted Ireland yellow during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. We created more than 20 separate campaigns and hundreds of information materials during this period that supported people to adopt new behaviours quickly, that helped protect us all from COVID-19. Yes, it’s hard to look at anything yellow now. It might be the same for us all.

We also work on projects that might be less visible, yet no less important - projects where public information materials or accessible materials are required to explain a health issue.

How we make decisions

I’m focusing here on the campaigns with a significant advertising budget. It’s important to start by saying that not that many health or social problems can be addressed with a marketing campaign, and none, that I know of, can be solved with marketing alone.

In future blogs from the team, we will go through more detail on some of our individual campaigns, how they’re built and designed and go into some detail about how we use research, creative advertising, media and evaluation – the fun stuff.

Our quality model is our decision making tool, designed to ensure that we’re putting the resources we have toward the most effective and impactful work, with the best chance of success, and that we’re giving the best advice to those who seek it.

We look at every new request, and indeed every existing campaign annually, across the six categories in the quality model:

1. Corporate and policy fit – is it in line with HSE or health policy, strategy and stated priorities?

2. The health or service need – what is the problem we’re trying to fix for people or for the health service?

  • Any available insight into the problem itself, available literature, service level detail, audience insights that might be available.
  • How many people are affected – mass media is a very good tool for reaching the population as a whole, or significant portions of it, but can be ineffective at reaching smaller target populations. This is especially true if the population are identified not by a demographic marker like age or location, but by an attitudinal or specific health risk that makes them difficult to target with media. 
  • The impact on people and on the health service as a result of the problem.

3. Service readiness

  • The long term service plan and vision, and any strategic and operational actions underway or planned.
  • Supports available to meet the demand that might be generated by a mass media campaign.
  • Operational and clinical support for the campaign work – we never work in isolation and all campaign development requires a significant input on behalf of the programme or service.

4. Communications need

  • The current communications problem, and any international or domestic evidence and learning, proof or otherwise of the effectiveness of communications or campaigns interventions.
  • Is this essential - what would happen if we don’t act?

5. Impacts

  • Define clearly how we would measure the real-world impact of the work if it is to progress.
  • What will the work aim to achieve? What is its mission statement?
  • What behaviour change will we aim for, what service uptake, can this be measured, how?

6. Cultural context

  • Looking at current events and opinions that might have an impact.
  • Is there someone else already doing what we’re proposing, or complimentary agencies or messages?
  • Any legislation that might have an impact in the lifetime of the campaign.

Laura Brennan (1992 – 2019). Laura joined our HPV vaccine campaign after receiving a terminal cervical cancer diagnosis. Shortly before Laura died, she recorded this video reporting an increase in uptake of the HPV vaccine

What happens then?

We’ll work with the programme to design a governance structure for the campaign. Our most successful campaigns are the ones that have great support from the programme, and great clinical, patient and partner involvement.

The next step, or the first step in terms of campaign development, is usually foundational research. This is the listening bit. Not until we can truly understand the problem from the audience’s perspective, are we ready to start working with our creative and media agencies to come up with solutions that will get the attention of the audience, and inform or inspire behaviour change. The insights from research allow us to start making creative advertising ideas, and to plan what channels and media buying activity the campaign will need.

A note on time

A long term knowledge or behaviour change campaign isn’t made overnight. For quality, effective work, these campaigns not only take time to develop – often a year or more. They also take time to have real impact.

We look forward to discussing other aspects of our campaign development more in future blogs.

If you want to find out more about the team, and what we’re working on, you’ll find more information about our work, and our contact details here.