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Communication and Patience are the Keys to a Healthy Working Relationship


How can public health and industry communicate more effectively with each other? A series of five seminars from the Hudson Institute at the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation aims to answer that question.

It’s clear through initiatives such as the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF) and Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA) that public-private partnerships between major industries and public health associations can – and do – work.

The 16 member companies of HWCF exceeded their goal to cut 1.5 trillion calories from the U.S. food marketplace by over 400 percent—that’s a whopping 6.4 trillion calories less than were available in 2007. And as part of PHA, Walmart is on track to build or renovate roughly 275 stores in food deserts across the country to include fresh groceries; they’re already two-thirds of the way there with about a year left to go.

In part, these efforts have been successful because they were quantifiable, measurable commitments; a “win-win” situation for both industry and public health; and the perfect mix of challenge and opportunity.

But at the same time, it can be hard for both sides to work together and meet in the middle to find a sustainable solution for issues such as childhood obesity.

“My belief is that there’s always room for progress―it’s just getting the two ends of the spectrum to see what the other side sees, because often times they don’t,” said Hank Cardello, director of the Obesity Solutions Initiative and moderator of the seminar series.

One of the main issues is the communications barrier: public health workers and industry executives just speak different languages.

At the seminar, Cardello offered several suggestions for bettering the communications between public health associations and industry. The first of which is learning to speak each other’s language.In order to most effectively reach industry, public health associations should translate their research and objectives into the target company’s own language and use their own metrics—this makes the potential “ask” more understandable on the industry’s side.

Next, be sure to accentuate the good. An example of this type of strategy in practice would be the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s response to the HWCF calorie reduction announcement last year, which, according to Cardello, gave congratulations and credit where they was due, but made it clear that there is still work to do. Basically, Cardello explained, dialogue with industry should be constructive and progress-based, not always overly critical.

“Companies get tired of hearing it, and then some of them actually get very jaded from constantly being attacked,” Cardello noted. “They say, well, it doesn’t matter what I do I’m going to get attacked, so why should I even pay attention?”

It’s also effective to show companies that you’ve done your research. This can be done in several ways. For example, compare them to their peers. Pretend you’re asking a major consumer packaged goods company to sell more healthy options—an area that is most likely not their big money maker. According to Cardello, showing the company hard data on how their competition has done something similar, and still been profitable, can go a long way.

Finally, Cardello explains that public health associations need to understand industry’s risks. Research and development is a long and costly process, and there is always the possibility that a company won’t make their money back once a new product is released. This is partly why 82 percent of new products are line extensions (think: new flavors of an existing yogurt versus an entirely new product). In short, the risk involved for companies to create and release an entirely new product is very high.

However, industry leaders are listening to the conversation around public health, and do have an interest in a focus on population and child health. After all, as Cardello pointed out, many of them are parents themselves.

“We’re never going to agree on everything, and that’s OK,” said Wendy Johnson-Askew, vice president for corporate affairs at Nestle, and another panelist. “But I’m encouraged that we’re at a point where we can really start to look at this [public-private partnership] approach critically.”

The next three seminar sessions will focus on “hot issues” in the food and public health spectrums, and the final session in the series will be focused on teaching industry leaders what they need to know about public health. More information will be available shortly before each session.