Reactions to Diabetes UK Imagery – Chris Askew

Diabetes has hit the headlines in a big way this week. That’s not unusual in itself, but this week the main focus has been on presenter Paul Hollywood’s entirely misplaced description of a Bake Off dish being ‘diabetes on a plate’. He has subsequently apologised and the comment will be redacted from any further screening of the show; so credit to him and Channel 4 for acting after the event in the right way. But we have a distance to go yet until it is accepted in public life that diabetes is no laughing matter, in the same way that other serious health conditions, such as cancer or stroke, clearly aren’t. We, with others, continue to work proactively with the media to tackle the misinformation that lies behind such comments (and should the reader work in the media, this guide on diabetes may be of help).

The seriousness of living with diabetes, and the potential impact of a diagnosis of any type of diabetes, are hugely understated in our public consciousness. Our awareness research shows that only 23% of the public consider diabetes to be one of the top four serious health conditions affecting people in the UK. Furthermore, understanding of the complications of diabetes is shockingly low. Around 40% of people don’t realise that diabetes can lead to amputations, and more than 70% don’t know there’s a link between diabetes and heart disease. This level of misunderstanding of the true nature of diabetes massively erodes the conversation on diabetes that we need to have at every level in public life. There’s a need for greater awareness across every area, whether that’s about investment in the health services and in scientific research in the UK, or the difference between different types of diabetes and discriminatory practices in the workplace and at school. We know that the throwaway remarks of friends and strangers are all too often misplaced, outright wrong and hurtful, and we also know we have the opportunity to appraise many millions of the risks of type 2, where lifestyle may be a factor, or of the signs and symptoms of Type 1.

When we at Diabetes UK talk, as we continuously do, with people living with or close to diabetes about where they want us to focus our messaging – we hear back the clear view that it is our job to up the seriousness of diabetes in the public consciousness; that stigma, discrimination, insufficient resources to prevent, treat and provide the highest standards of care, will persist unless that changes.

And that brings me to the topic of this blog, and another focus of social media reaction this week, which is the imagery used by us in a door drop campaign, where we featured a photo of an amputee alongside a national statistic on lower limb amputations. ‘That’s appalling! I’m guessing they’re wanting donations but the message ain’t too inspiring’ and ‘What is so shocking about @DiabetesUK post is that this charity was set up to advocate for diabetics’ were just two of the many comments we have read and reflected on.

So why did we do this and what were we trying to achieve? This ‘door drop’ pack certainly aimed to bring the facts of diabetes before a wider audience and to stress the potential seriousness of the condition, and the information inside the envelope does just that. Yes – the pack was also designed to attract new supporters to our work and to make a donation (we suggested of £3); diabetes is one of the least well-funded long term conditions in terms of charitable donations, and we have a role to play to bring more resources to the work we do and fund. We also included our helpline number in the materials in the event that the pack raised any diabetes-related concerns for those who received it.

But did we fully evaluate the negative impact it might have on an individual or a household living with diabetes? I have to say ‘no’ to that and I know I speak for everyone at Diabetes UK in saying we regret any instance of distress or upset as a result of something we do or say. Of course, we walk a tight rope between ensuring our messaging as often as possible sits well with every single one of those we are here to serve, whilst at the same time provoking and challenging public attitudes around a condition which is deeply misunderstood and understated. We know as well as anyone that shock tactics are most often ineffective, but we also feel a responsibility to put the facts of diabetes in the public domain, and will always encourage those we work with to do the same. To never challenge that ignorance and lack of awareness would be the safe thing to do, but I also strongly feel it would be neglectful of our mission. Did we get that balance right here? My view is that we should have been more thoughtful in our choice of imagery here and we will, as we do in all our work, take on board the feedback and learn lessons.

Earlier this year, we ran a large digital campaign called ‘Be in the know’, which was designed to raise awareness of the early signs and symptoms of complications. We developed the imagery and messaging in consultation with people living diabetes and with healthcare professionals. The final campaign resulted in more than a million engagements with our online health information, and shifted people’s awareness of the signs of possible complications by 20 percentage points among those who had seen it.  So we can get it right. And yes, we can get it wrong, too, and in those instances, we embrace the opportunity to learn.

Next month, we will be launching our strategy for the next five years, which has been entirely shaped and driven by the views and ambitions of those whose lives we are here to improve. The largest discussion we have ever convened about what people with diabetes want and need, has formed a large part of our thinking (you can find it here ) and that conversation will continue in the months and years ahead, not least as one of our headline goals is that ‘more people will live better and more confident lives with diabetes, free from discrimination.’

So I’ll close with an invitation; be a part of that conversation with us, whether that’s by joining one of our insight and advisory groups when there are vacancies, by reacting – as many of you have done on social media this week – with feedback, by engaging with our local group in your area or by contacting me directly, because it is only by working alongside you, that we’ll be able to achieve the biggest impact for everyone affected by diabetes in the months and years ahead.

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