Last week, under the sad and preventable circumstances of Glee actor Cory Monteith’s death, I had an opportunity to talk with the print news-media about a public health issue that is close to my heart: harm reduction. While I’ve spoken with media before, last week was the first time I’d been directly contacted for comment, and I was contacted three times that day by different reporters! What a debut: I wasn’t prepared, and I got a bit frazzled. Still, I think I managed to get my point across, and to learn some things as well: which is what this post is all about.
First, I piggybacked.
No, I didn’t ride the reporters’ shoulders. Piggybacking is a media advocacy strategy where you use a news story that is getting a lot of coverage, and is somewhat related to your point, to gain media coverage for your ideas and campaigns.
I’ve never been a big Glee fan (though I will admit I’ve watched a couple of episodes here and there) and I didn’t even know who Cory Monteith was until the evening before I got the phone call. I wasn’t prepared to comment on Cory’s death in particular. What I was prepared to talk about was the preventable nature of overdose, the fact that low-income people overdose rather frequently and it doesn’t become a big news story, and the need for public health-based responses to drug addiction. So, that’s where I took the conversation with the reporters. A couple of the reporters weren’t very receptive. One even put me on hold a couple of times (I didn’t get mentioned in his story). But, one reporter listened and is even planning a follow-up story based on some of the comments I made. Pretty good for a piggybacking strategy I think.
Next, I became a bit like a broken record.
The reporters seemed to have their own agendas of what I would say for their stories, but I kept repeating my main points and strategies. Testing drugs for purity and adulterants can help prevent overdose. We test drugs in people’s systems after they die, but won’t drugs before people get to that point. Naloxone is a life-saving drug which needs to be more available in Canada. People in the Downtown Eastside die all the time from overdose, and we don’t get the same level of media attention as Cory Monteith. Overdose happens frequently and is preventable, we need to address it through public health strategies: not criminalization.
The last thing I learned was not to say anything I wouldn’t want to be quoted on. In one of my earlier conversations that day I felt like I’d been a bit aloof about Cory’s death. I’m not. I think it’s very sad, it’s just that it’s something I’ve seen a lot of working in harm reduction and I get a bit cranky when I see so much media attention for a celebrity while my friends and clients die from overdose in the Downtown Eastside, in Victoria and in Toronto without so much as an obituary.
After that interview I made very sure to keep repeating that his death was tragic, and relating all my other points to that. Reporters pushed me to say what they wanted me to say, but I kept making sure to control the conversation, answering the questions in the ways I wanted to, even if it meant piggybacking again.
In the end, the experience went well. Some of the key messages I was promoting made it into the papers in relation to a hot-topic story, meaning that people who might not normally read about overdose might read those reports. In the future, I would likely take a more pro-active approach, calling media when big news stories clearly relate to the work I do and the issues I care about.
In global health we hear the word champion often. Champions can open minds and doors for innovation. They mobilize communities and advocate for change. They can reduce stigmas by providing accurate information and putting faces to silent struggles and years of discrimination. Global health champions helped eradicate smallpox and have given voice and legitimacy to HIV/aids in communities across the world. Champions can be survivors with their own stories to tell, empathetic allies and opinion or community leaders, or even relatable fictional characters. A Cohrene study (2007 as cited in NCCMT, 2011) suggests that using champions is effective approach to promoting change.
According to The National Collaborating Center for Methods and Tools or NCCMT (2011), “A champion is a charismatic advocate of a belief, practice, program, policy and/or technology.”
So how does one go about cultivating champions?
My answer is that there is not a single right answer. It depends on where you are, what you want to do and whose involved. Like anything you have to match the answer to the question. Do some formative research and decipher who is your audience and who and what influence and move them (see some of our previous blog posts about social marketing). Programs around the world depend on various types of champions: some engage communities and local people, some engage survivors and those with personal stories and struggles and some engage or create opinion leaders both real and fictional. In some situations champions can emerge on there own without being involved in a formal program or policy.
For example the dark, humorous but incredibly insightful blog author “Allie’ of Hyperbole and a Half posted “Depression part 2” explaining her experience with depression and strangely enough a piece of corn under her fridge. This single blog post began conversations about mental and depression by simply telling a story and explaining what it was like in a creating and captivating way. It has 5000 comments from the day it was posted, and is referenced by numerous blogs and popular websites including jezebel and reddit. If you need more proof simple google ” depression corn under the fridge”
For those of you who want a more theoretical or evidence based approach you can look into the “champion advocacy model” as outlined by NCCMT. This model looks at the likelihood that a idea or practice is adopted by the population of interest (relates to the diffusion of innovation model). Using a project by Family Health International (FHI) called ‘Network of Champions’ of (NOC which is detailed here), NCCMT argues that aligning individuals whom are already perceived as opinion leaders is more effective in promoting change than less influential individuals who are already aligned with your cause. They also conclude that:
- The influence of a single influence may be limited to a certain level or sphere. Therefore multiple champions should be engaged at multiple ‘points of influence’ to maximize their combined influence while avoiding bottlenecks.
- Any new advocacy effort demands a significant buy in and support from a wide range of stakeholders.
- Incentives and supports for champions can increase likelihood of success, including formal recognition and acknowledgement, technical and financial supports including transport stipends, capacity-building opportunities and skills certificates” (FHI, 2011)
- It is essential that strategies to prevent or address champion fatigue are developed and implemented.
- Any external inter-country networking of a various number of champion based initiatives should be established and maintained on an individual bases.
In addition to these lessons, FHI’s own report on NOC also recommends that you match your champion to the specific activity you want them to do being mindful of their position, influence, time frames and feasibility. You should also encourage champions to build local support networks and internalize the program’s vision to avoid micro managing them (FHI, 2011).