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Good communication strategy is key to successful partnership

This is an excerpt from Public-Private Partnerships in Physical Activity and Sport by Norman O'Reilly & Michelle Brunette.

Importance of a Good Communications Strategy

Many partnerships seek to increase physical activity, healthy behaviors, and sport participation. Thus, these outcomes are often the goal of the partnership and the accompanying messages. These types of partnerships are the focus of this book. When sport is an element of the partnership, it can also act as a tool to communicate another often more important message (e.g., consider Right To Play's use of sport to promote peace building, integration, and self-confidence in youth). Pegoraro et al. (2010) emphasize this point, noting that sport is “a corporate marketing tool [that] provides increased flexibility, broad reach, and high levels of brand and corporate exposure” (p. 1454). This idea also applies to partnerships based on health and physical activity, in which health (e.g., the Canadian Mental Health Association's implementation of a program to reduce the negative stigma around mental health) or physical activity (e.g., ParticipACTION's SOGO active program) can act as tools to support communications efforts. Whether physical activity, health, or sport is the goal of the message, or whether it is the medium of the message (e.g., advertising through sport, sport-based sponsorship), both private-sector and public-sector partners must be effective story tellers for their messages to reach their target audiences.

One of the stages of The Partnership Protocol that was presented in chapter 2 includes a commitment to establishing a communications strategy and building a relationship framework to engage stakeholders and tell a story. The research process undertaken (see appendix A) to develop The Partnership Protocol included numerous expert consultations with a consensus expressed around the vital importance of communicating the benefits of any public-private partnership both internally and externally. Consider even groundbreaking results from rigorous research; despite the importance of the conclusions, the research is not important or appreciated until it is communicated and translated to health professionals, educators, and finally individuals and their families. The analogy holds well for partnerships. To grow knowledge of their use and importance, positive experience must be widely communicated. Thus, the message, its reach, and the way that people interpret and use your partnership's message are crucial to the success of your partnership.

Communications Strategies

Within a partnership, two main communications strategies should be considered. The first is a plan to share information about the partnership internally, within your own organization and with your partners. With a good internal communications strategy in place, you can then reach out externally to begin to build and share your message in hopes of successfully implementing your partnership's goals and objectives. Partners should collaborate in planning their communications strategies at the onset of the partnership, considering each other's policies, procedures, needs, and objectives (UN 2007). In summary, the organizations involved in any partnership need to plan bothan internal and an external communications plan.

Successful partnerships are built on mutual understanding and clear goals and objectives. A strong internal communications plan that considers how best to share and distribute information among, within, and between partners is a necessary part of good partnership management. Open and clear messages drum up internal support for the partnership, help to identify opportunities or gaps, and can create a sense of employee pride and engagement that can be expressed through employee participation or volunteering in a partnership fitness or health program. Between partners, good communication can eliminate some of the misunderstandings that lead to program failure. Internal communication relies on having clear leadership in each organization, including identified people who maintain regular contact (by phone, e-mail, social media tools, or in person) as the partnership progresses. These leaders and their teams should understand how to manage and promote the partnership internally, which can inspire increased internal ­support for the partnership and be a good basis on which to take the message

A good external communications strategy is crucial to the partnership's success. It will determine how much the public is willing to buy into the partnership. External communications should address how the partnership goals can benefit the public (e.g., contributing to increased health) and aim to increase the demand in the programs (Vail 2007). In essence, a partnership is never completed until the details are shared with citizens and private businesses or organizations that will use the programs; they need to be sold on the process and outcome of the partnership (e.g., the program, the facility, or the product created) (Rosentraub and Swindell 2009). In Vail's (2007) examination of Tennis Canada's partnerships, communication action aimed to introduce more people to tennis in local communities through rallies and meetings with private community and tennis leaders. Like internal communications plans, external communication messages can increase support for the partnership, which can motivate more people to contribute volunteer hours or donations.

In creating a communications plan, partners must consider accountability and transparency to protect public interests. Recently, as Hodge and Greve (2007) explained, public-private partnerships have been criticized for low communication and transparency, which can decrease public confidence in the partnerships. To increase communication and transparency in a public-private soccer stadium project in Slovenia, the public partner maintained a public online system to explain details of the partnership and allowed the submission of anonymous questions (Ferk and Ferk 2008). Answers were provided in a timely manner by e-mail to interested parties. Each partner should be ready to answer to conflicting pressure from the media. Communications and press release strategies should be clarified at the beginning of the partnership, and all partner-to-partner negotiations should be kept confidential until the communications strategy is in place (Rosentraub and Swindell 2009).

Governments, Alliances,and Partnerships

Craig Larsen

Executive Director, Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada


Craig has worked in the health sector for 23 years in policy, research, and practice domains. After working for several years in acute and palliative nursing, he moved into administration and participated in the implementation of health care regionalization in British Columbia. Working as a policy consultant at the Health Association of BC, Craig facilitated a number of collaborative projects that brought together representatives from a wide range of sectors and stakeholder groups. These projects included feedback to government on policies and programs and implementation of accountability systems for health authorities. Craig managed the inaugural iteration of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research's Institute of Health Services and Policy Research and helped develop and support research-funding programs. Currently, Craig is executive director at the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada, which focuses on childhood obesity and food security.

Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada (CDPAC)

CDPAC is an alliance of 10 national NGOs (Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health, Canadian Cancer Society, Canadian Council for Tobacco Control, Canadian Diabetes Association, Canadian Public Health Association, Coalition for Active Living, Dietitians of Canada, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, the Kidney Foundation of Canada, and YMCA Canada) who agree that some aspects of their respective mandates can be done more effectively by working together in

One senior-level representative from each member organization is appointed by his or her organization to sit on the CDPAC Alliance, which functions similarly to a board of directors. The alliance sets the overall strategic direction for the organization (e.g., topic areas, priorities). Each member organization contributes resources as well, both financial and in-kind in the form of project work and operational support

Another major arm of our partnership is the Network of Provincial and Territorial Alliances, created by CDPAC to provide a forum for key players in healthy living at the provincial and territorial levels to link, share, and collaborate. Two representatives from these local alliances sit at the CDPAC Alliance table and participate in CDPAC business on behalf of the overall network.

Although CDPAC has just two employees, including me, we are in fact a partnership involving many people. Numerous employees from member organizations participate in our collective work, as do many people from the network. We don't currently have private-sector participation in the CDPAC partnership, but we do liaise with various industry representatives on a project basis as appropriate.

CDPAC's mandate comprises three main streams:

  1. Advocacy—influencing public policy related to chronic disease prevention in priority topic areas
  2. Knowledge development and exchange—supporting the creation and dissemination of evidence and information to provide a rational basis for our advocacy portfolios
  3. Facilitating an integrated approach to chronic disease prevention—­functioning as both a forum and a catalyst for alliance members and players in other organizations and sectors to work together for chronic disease prevention

My role as executive director is to provide facilitative and operational leadership for fulfillment of this mandate.

It is under the second point, knowledge development and exchange, and the third, integrated approach, that the idea of partnership becomes particularly meaningful to CDPAC. We've chosen to work in partnership because several of the key risk factors associated with member organizations' respective mandates are common across the broad alliance (such as nutritional practices and physical activity levels). As mentioned earlier, we know that we can do a better job of influencing the policy environment by working together.

Given the strong links between obesity (which is largely a consequence of food and beverage consumption patterns and activity levels) and several cancers and chronic diseases, we think that it is important to set our sights upstream. Childhood obesity is therefore a priority area for action by CDPAC.

Marketing in Health

CDPAC is trying to change the Canadian landscape around the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children. Our advocacy work is primarily at the federal government level. The alliance worked together to develop a policy position, and delegations from the alliance now meet with ministers and senior government officials to review the evidence linking marketing and childhood obesity and to deliver our policy recommendations—making a plea for control and regulation of marketing to kids across Canada. The province of Quebec is one of the few places in the world that has taken a regulatory approach, and we're seeing that it can work.

In addition to our federal-level lobbying, we also convene pan-Canadian conferences, webinars, and education campaigns directed at a broader range of stakeholders such as public health workers, government personnel, and the academic sector to advance awareness and evidence of the links between factors such as marketing and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption and obesity. The overall aim of our efforts in this regard is to increase awareness and capacity to take action on childhood obesity. In turn, this contributes to a groundswell of public support for our advocacy.

At present, CDPAC does not directly target consumers (families and parents) in its campaigns and activities. But we have recently partnered with three other organizations to explore the potential for building in Canada something like the so-called Parent's Jury program in Australia. It is directed at, and essentially run by, parents. One of its interesting tactics is to hold annual “fame and shame” awards in which parents nominate and vote for food and beverage organizations that are doing progressive marketing to support better health (fame) and those that are being particularly damaging in terms of influencing unhealthy food and beverage choices by kids

Importance of Partnerships

In my view, wider-reaching partnerships are vital to continued growth and progress in Canada's chronic disease prevention domain. Partnerships between NGO organizations such as CDPAC and other sectors outside the health care and chronic disease prevention arenas will play an increasingly important role. I mentioned, for example, that insufficient activity levels are a major contributor to obesity. We have to look at the various reasons why people are not more active and address those reasons. We know that the web of causation is complex and multifaceted. Therefore, we have to be prepared to take action at many levels and across many sectors. New forms of partnership are needed so that greater connectivity can be achieved between those who understand the consequences of factors such as a poorly designed community and the urban planners and municipalities who are responsible for such decisions.

Reflecting on my 26 years in various roles within the policy realm, I have identified numerous critical success factors for effective partnerships. Of the lessons that I have learned, I believe the most important is the need for trusted relationships. Trust develops through communication. All partners must develop and maintain a shared understanding of objectives, roles, and responsibilities. Attaining this objective depends on regular communication that is clear and purposeful. You need to stay in touch. As everyone knows, nothing beats in-person, face-to-face connections at least once or twice per year. But in between, you have to maintain the trusted relationship by carefully protecting sufficient calendar time for regular connectivity through electronic or other means. For me, that is a critical piece.

Global Application Questions

  1. Larsen discusses alliances amongst governments. How important do you think these are and why?
  2. Should these alliances be allowed to partner with for-profit corporations? If so, are there any restrictions that you would suggest? If not, why not?
  3. Larsen notes that CDPAC does not directly target consumers in its campaigns and activities, but how does CDPAC engage families and parents in their work?

Read more from Public-Private Partnerships in Physical Activity and Sport edited by Norman O'Reilly and Michelle Brunette.

More Excerpts From Public Private Partnerships in Physical Activity and Sport