Let’s talk about (male) fertility, baby

The important role of communications in stigmatised areas of health

My friends and I have always been very comfortable talking about women’s health issues. In our teens we talked about our bodies and periods. In our twenties, we shared our experiences with different types of contraception, and reassured one another that smear tests = nothing to worry about. Basically, we thought we had ‘women’s health’ nailed.

Now we are in our thirties, our dinner table conversations have taken a turn. We’re no longer talking about ‘how not to get pregnant’ and instead, we’re talking about ‘how to get pregnant’ and sadly for some, it isn’t as easy as we once thought. This is an interesting shift, and not one that our school curriculum equipped us for. Suddenly, we’re expected to understand the ins and outs of ovulation, egg counts, hormones, and more…it’s a minefield. However, it’s reassuring to know that just as we did in our 20s, we will Google and chat, share and support each other until things are a little clearer.

This leaves me to ponder the question – is this something our male friends and partners are also sharing with one another? I suspect the answer is no. But why not? Fertility is not a female-specific health concern, so what is stopping men from talking openly about it?

Earlier this year, Rhod Gilbert starred in a #BBC documentary that delved into male fertility issues and made a valiant effort to break the taboo, combining stories of Rhod’s own experience coupled with his talent for observational humour. He launched an awareness campaign – HIMfertility – with a comedy gig, and paraded through a shopping centre wearing a big HIMfertility sign. He openly admitted to feeling “mortified” as he walked around The Fertility Show and described the scene: “Mainly women with blokes towing along behind, eyes down, pretending it’s nothing to do with them and hoping that other people think it’s nothing to do with them”.

While I was shocked to hear that sperm counts across the Western world have dropped by around 60 per cent in the past 40 years, I wasn’t surprised by the level of shame and discomfort displayed by the men that Rhod interviewed on the subject, despite his best efforts. For me, it highlighted a simple truth that the perceived link between masculinity and fertility is what’s really getting in the way of men opening up about their struggles and stopping them from seeking help.

A large part of my career to date has been spent communicating about the more ‘taboo’ side of healthcare. Weight gain, warts, bad breath, contraception, BV and heavy menstrual bleeding. Yep – I’ve tackled them all. It’s not easy, but the challenges that stigmatised areas of health present are actually some of my favourites to overcome, as they require careful strategic thinking and creativity.

In a world where very few are willing to talk about male fertility issues, what role can communications play in shifting the dial?  Here a few things that I’ve learnt about mastering communications in healthcare’s silent spaces:

UNDERSTANDING IS KEY

It goes without saying that the better you understand the therapy area and the behaviours and attitudes of your target audience, the more effective your communications strategy will be. Marketing 101. However, when it comes to building a strategy around a topic area that no-one is talking about, your sources of secondary data might be hard to come by. Thinking outside the box by gathering your own primary data (e.g. focus groups) and / or undertaking social listening to understand the ways in which your audience is navigating conversations about the subject area (e.g. how they avoid talking about it…) could just help you land on the right note.

START SMALL

Every PR person strives for that front-page newspaper splash that sparks the next big ‘water cooler’ moment. However, when you’re tackling a more intimate area of health, the gold-standard outcome might not be as obvious as front-page news. If no-one was talking about ‘male fertility’ yesterday, it’s unlikely that any one comms activity will turn things from zero to 100 overnight. It’s important to set realistic goals and keep your primary objective in sight at all times. If your aim is to ‘get people talking’ then your goal could be as simple as creating a safe space in which a small, select community can share and engage with relevant information. Remember that small steps can lead to big changes in time.

DON’T BE TOO PRESCRIPTIVE

When your target audience is as broad as ‘men’ or ‘women’ it can be tempting to make demographic assumptions to help narrow the net. However, this can be a big mistake. Try not to be too prescriptive with your target audience at the start of a campaign and instead, be clear on what your objective is – raising awareness, engagement, driving traffic to a website, etc – and use your testing period to see what audience profile is achieving this objective.  A paid social strategy can be a great tool for refining your audience, just remember not to tinker with the campaign too early, let the algorithm learn and optimise first.

TEST, TEST AND TEST AGAIN

Finding the right way to communicate about a sensitive health topic can take time and require a level of trial and error. It’s important to sense-check your strategy and messaging throughout the planning process with people that actually represent your target audience. This may require additional research activity or running a low-level, dark social campaign to test and learn. Just remember that when you’re operating in an uncomfortable space, even your target audience may not know how a message will land with them until they’re faced with it, so be prepared to test, learn and test again until you find a route that works.

PLAN YOUR CHANNELS

Channel planning is always important to effectively reach a specific audience. However, when it comes to the more stigmatised health topics, the question isn’t as simple as ‘where does my audience consume media’ but also, ‘where would they be comfortable receiving information about X?’ Dr Google is often the first port of call for health questions, particularly if it is a more embarrassing area of health, so a digital strategy is often a good way to go. Think carefully about where and when it is appropriate to target your audience with messaging and plan your channels accordingly.

LAUGHTER ISN’T OFF THE MENU

If you’re tackling a particularly sensitive area of health, it can be easy to slip into ‘serious’ mode. However, research suggests that the use of humour when communicating health messaging, particularly when targeting men, can be very effective. Look at the success of Rhod Gilbert’s HIMfertility campaign, for example. So, don’t be afraid to explore the ways in which humour can be utilised to connect with your audience and create a more relaxed space for open conversation. Just be mindful to stay on the right side of humour, not humiliation. Involving members of your target audience throughout your planning phases as mentioned above should help you define the parameters of what is and isn’t acceptable.

There is clearly no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating difficult or sensitive subjects. If you have a health comms challenge you’d like to overcome, we would love to explore it with you. Get in touch today @ Health@brands2life.com.

Written by Hadassah Cullen, Associate Director, Health & Wellbeing

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