Make it Better

Why we need great public sector PR about the wellbeing benefits of culture

About the author

Elizabeth Clare prepared this article for a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Hi! Street Fest celebrates Gloucester's rich culture and heritage, 1 July 2023. A Historic England event in collaboration with Gloucester City Council cultural services, with funding from Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. © Historic England
Hi! Street Fest celebrates Gloucester's rich culture and heritage, 1 July 2023. A Historic England event in collaboration with Gloucester City Council cultural services, with funding from Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund. © Historic England

‘The time has come to recognise the powerful contribution the arts can make to our health and wellbeing.’
Rt Hon. Lord Howarth of Newport
Co-Chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing.

Wellbeing is one of the biggest social and political challenges today. Are we convincing people that culture can help make us feel better?

Elizabeth Clare

Even before the Coronavirus pandemic, public health in the UK was in crisis. COVID-19 has deepened social inequalities and seen increases in loneliness and poor mental health. In addition to a backlog of care, 1.5 million people are now living with long COVID, placing more demands on the NHS. The current cost of living crisis brings yet more, significant challenges to our wellbeing.

In the new models of healthcare delivery that are evolving to address current needs and prevent future health inequality,  arts, culture and heritage are front and centre.

The value of culture to health and wellbeing has long been acknowledged. As individuals, we know the restorative benefits of time spent in beautiful places or engaged in creative activities. This has been affirmed in a growing and increasingly influential body of evidence highlighting what it is about culture that helps us feel well, and how to realise those benefits for our social and economic health. Consequently, the role of culture in improving public health has been enshrined in policy, including in the government’s flagship Levelling Up agenda, designed to tackle regional health end economic inequalities.

One of the main ways embedding culture in health delivery will be achieved is through social prescribing, which works alongside traditional healthcare to resolve issues that contribute to poor health and quality of life.  Set up in 2019, the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP) lead on this initiative and see culture as critical to their mission. Agencies including Arts Council England and Historic England are already working with them to achieve this.

But social prescribing is just one route to support wellbeing through culture. Standalone initiatives can and should play a role too. Simply encouraging people to visit, participate in and enjoy culture, and making it clear that there are health benefits in doing so, is part of achieving this major policy objective.

As the largest provider of arts and cultural services in the country, the public sector is uniquely placed to deliver better health through culture. But it must be seen to be doing so. This is not just to show that taxpayer funding is supporting public good in the widest sense. It’s to support the behaviour change needed to materially improve our wellbeing.

An opportunity for public sector PR?

Wellbeing would certainly fall into Andrew Griffin’s definition of an issue, and one that requires ‘careful positioning, policy development, communication and often – and most importantly – change in order to manage or resolve them.’ But is it a risk or an opportunity?

There is a degree of risk. Organisations keen to communicate how they are fulfilling Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) responsibilities are rightly accused of greenwashing when those claims are weak, misleading, or simply just marketing. Social washing exists too, and while the commercial sector is more at risk of criticism of these practices, a recent report by the Global Government Forum suggests the public sector is not immune. Given public bodies are by definition there to deliver public good, why risk attracting censure? I think that risk is small and more than outweighed by the benefits. On balance, public sector PR about culture and wellbeing is a major opportunity.

First, it’s our job. As the Government Communications Service (GCS) purpose says, public sector communications support the delivery of policy objectives and improve lives by driving socially beneficial behaviour change. The Institute for Government adds ‘By helping to shape citizens’ behaviour, government communications has the potential to be a relatively low-cost contribution to achieving the government’s priorities.’ Kantar’s 2023 Leaders’ Report agrees, but notes that government communication is still undervalued and under-utilised as a tool of policy delivery. Clearly, the public sector isn’t punching its weight; more could be done.

Second, there’s a gap to fill. Many of the organisations championing culture and wellbeing see raising awareness of its benefits as a priority. NASP’s aspiration is that by 2026, two-thirds of adults will report that they recognise the value of social prescribing activities to health and wellbeing: the figure is currently 9 per cent. But while toolkits and guidance are emerging to help commissioners, link workers, community groups and cultural organisations design wellbeing initiatives, they don’t cover communications and advocacy. Practitioners’ skills and guidance are needed.

Third, spreading the word about culture and wellbeing could bring reputational benefits, desirable given Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2023 shows trust in government is still lower than trust in business. RepTrak’s public sector survey, commissioned by the Cabinet Office, is an annual measure of confidence in eighty public sector bodies. One of the measures, ‘citizenship,’ considers how far the organisation contributes to quality of life, including health and wellbeing. Using communications to highlight support for wellbeing, particularly for non-specialist audiences, could have a positive effect on scores.

The aim of public sector communications in supporting culture and wellbeing should be: increasing public awareness of the health benefits of cultural engagement; and supporting collaboration between health and social care providers and the culture sector, based on a shared understanding of the benefits and opportunities of creative health.

But where to start and what to focus on? To drive behaviour change, the aim of public sector communications in supporting culture and wellbeing should be twofold. First, as the first step in driving behaviour change, it should increase public awareness of the health benefits of cultural engagement and its availability. Second, it should support collaboration between health and social care providers and the culture sector, based on a shared understanding of the benefits and opportunities of creative health. Recent examples of practice offer useful pointers for the task ahead.

  1. Strategy

As Gregory and Willis state, ‘The role of PR is therefore not just to communicate about an organisation, but to establish what the organisation is and what value it offers stakeholders, through communication.’ This is driven by corporate strategy, which creates the framework for strategic programmes of work allocates resources to them. Beneath this level frameworks such as GCS’s OASIS model, help plan outcomes-focussed communications to drive behaviour change.

Communications about culture and wellbeing need to capture opportunities from across the organisation and its partnerships. All relevant activities – creative health interventions, new research, or sector engagement – should be in a communications plan, with objectives, messages and outcomes aligned with corporate aims. Ideally, these should be agreed at the outset, and communications practitioners allocated to support delivery.

Pandemic and Beyond’ a project run by the University of Exeter is a great example of upfront identification of what can be achieved when communications outputs and outcomes, and resources, are identified at the outset. Pandemic and Beyond linked projects in the arts and humanities that suggested solutions to urgent issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic via a virtual hub for researchers, user groups, journalists, and policymakers. Three of the project’s five key aims were around communications and the project team included six communications and media professionals. Its outputs and outcomes were impressive, including 23 blog posts, three documentary films, 25 podcasts, 3.3 million Twitter impressions and events that brought together ‘more than 100 senior civil servants, government officials UK Government Ministers, MPs and other elected representatives, public sector decision makers and third sector leaders.’

  1. Persuasion

NASP report that they have a ‘constant battle’ to encourage people to see that activities with arts, heritage and culture are for them.[i] Many see culture as elite or outside of their experience. Communications can help challenge this perception by focussing on activities and initiatives around ‘everyday’ culture and heritage. The National Trust’s highly successful annual #BlossomWatch campaign achieves this by encouraging people to take pictures of blossom wherever they are, whether at the charity’s properties or in their local high street or park. In this way, the experience, and its benefits, are open to a larger audience, and decoupled from conventional engagement with the National Trust and perceptions associated with it.

Language is also important. Historic England’s Missing Pieces Project encourages people to notice and connect with the heritage that means something to them, such as a former workplace or a monument they find interesting. It offers possibilities for social prescribers as the activities can be adapted according to need and location. Project organisers are advised to be mindful of language and terminology, and to be aware that ‘heritage’ means different things to different people, including negative connotations, and could be a barrier to participation.

  1. Collaboration

In recent thinking about culture and wellbeing, including a Council of Europe report, the importance of collaboration comes up time and again. As Griffin identifies, positioning is an important consideration in responding to social issues. It is clear from current practice that cultural organisations are collaborating and aligning their responses, with individual sectors’ unique role clearly articulated but part of a greater offer. Going it alone could risk unhelpful fragmentation and loss of impact.

Collaboration should therefore be reflected in individual organisations’ communications plans, so that partners have identified and agreed opportunities for joint campaigns or activities, for example around Mental Health Awareness Week, publicly underlining their commitment to a shared cause.

Vital collaboration will also take place in local or hyper-local settings, where interventions will be tailored to meet local needs and opportunities. Close and sustained stakeholder engagement will be critical. Griffin recognises that the communications function often takes the lead in creating the framework within which stakeholder engagement takes place and helps coordinate activities. Communicators can also provide coaching and support, for example to encourage participants to act as spokespeople, or to create project blogs, to boost local awareness of the initiative and its benefits, thereby encouraging others to consider taking part.

  1. Listening

Listening is perhaps the most critical skill the communications function can offer to developing cultural wellbeing awareness. As Susan Kinnear has pointed out, publics and stakeholders are co-creators in the actual services they receive and not just passive recipients of information.[ii] Truly embedding culture in a new healthcare model in the long term depends on the public sector establishing a dialogic relationship with publics, moving further from the traditional two-way asymmetric model. Roberts-Bowman and Walker see this as a major opportunity for communication to ‘mov[e] beyond a tactical function…to one that aims to re-engage individuals as active citizens.’

The communications function has a key role to play in planning and delivering a dialogic relationship, and ensuring it is fair and unbiased. As Heather Yaxley points out, an ‘agentic position in a dialogic network may be an influential one, it can be unethical.’ Listening is key. GCS recognises the importance of developing practitioners’ skills in this area and provides training and guidance to members,  including resources on Jim Macnamara’s ‘architecture of listening.’ CIPR’s ‘Who’s Listening’ research reports are also helpful.

A dialogic relationship can shape communications as well as the services themselves. Yaxley notes that ‘communicators can also take advantage of opportunities to co-create content with various stakeholders and publics…and benefit from developing and managing a community of advocates and influencers who will originate and share favourable, independent content.’[iii] Good listening will help co-create relevant, culturally appropriate and accessible wellbeing initiatives, and engage participants as potential, and very powerful, advocates for culture and wellbeing.

The takeaway

It is time culture is recognised for the many powerful ways it can make us feel better. Right now, public sector communicators have a great opportunity to secure that recognition and to change behaviour in a way that benefits our nation’s health. From getting strategies in place to really listening, let’s make communications about culture and wellbeing better.

[i] Dabiri, T. (2023, June 27).  ‘How wellbeing fits into Levelling Up’ [PowerPoint Presentation]. Historic England Staff UnConference. Virtual.

[ii] Kinnear, S., 2021. Public Sector Public Relations. In: The Public Relations Handbook. 6th ed. London: Routledge, pp. 266-280.

[iii] Yaxley, H., 2021. Content creation, curation and community management. In: CIPR Professional PR Diploma Reader. Maidstone: CIPR, pp. 103-111.