‘What would the ideal campaign about diabetes complications look like?’
What a loaded question, I thought. I was in a room full of creative consultants who wanted to have a chat with me about a new campaign they had been commissioned to develop. I felt like I was being interrogated. I was on one side of a huge table in a cavernous boardroom and opposite me, sat half a dozen consultants with digital notepads, dozens of questions, and eager, smiley looks on their faces. And very little idea of what living with diabetes is truly about, or just how fraught discussions about diabetes complications can be.
I sighed. I already had an idea of what their campaign would look like. I knew because more than two decades working as a diabetes advocate means I’ve seen a lot of it before.
‘Well,’ I started circling back to their question. ‘Probably nothing like what you have on those storyboards over there’. I indicated to the easels that had been placed around the room, each holding a covered-over poster. The huge smiles hardened a little.
Honestly, I have no idea why I get invited to these consultations. I make things very hard for the people on the other side of the table (or Zoom screen, or panel, or wherever these discussions take place).
I suppose I get brought in because I am known for being pretty direct and have lots of experience. And I don’t care about being popular or pleasing people. There is rarely ambiguity in my comments, and I can get to the crux of issue very quickly. Plus, consulting means getting paid by the hour and I can sum things up in minutes rather than an afternoon of workshops, and that means they get me in and out of the door without needing to feed me. I think the industry term for it is getting more bang for their buck.
I suggested that we start with a different question. And that question is this: ‘How do you feel when it is time for a diabetes complication screening’.
One of the consultants asked why that was a better question. I explained that it was important to understand just how people feel when it comes to discussions about complications and from there, learn how people feel when it’s time to be screened for them.
‘The two go hand in hand. I mean, if you are going to highlight the scary details of diabetes complications, surely you understand that will translate into people not necessarily rushing to find out more details.’
I told them the story I’ve told hundreds of times before – the story of my diagnosis and the images I was shown to convey all the terrible things that my life had in store now. Twenty-five years later, dozens and dozens of screening checks behind me, and no significant complication diagnosis to date, and yet, the anxiety I feel when I know it’s time for me to get my kidneys screened, or my eyes checked sends me into a spiral of fret and worry that hasn’t diminished at all over time. In fact, if anything, it has increased because of the way that we are reminded that the longer we have diabetes, the more likely we are to get complications. There is no good news here!
‘But people aren’t getting checked. They know they should, and they don’t. And some don’t know they need to. Or even that there are complications,’ came the reply from the other side of the table.
Now it was me whose face hardened.
‘Let’s unpack that for a moment,’ I said. ‘You have just made a very judgemental statement about people with diabetes. I don’t do judgement in diabetes, but if you want to lay blame, where should it lie? If you’re telling me that people don’t know they need to get checked or that there are diabetes complications, whose fault is that?’
‘Blaming people or finding fault does nothing. That’s not going to help us here. You’ve been tasked to develop something that informs people with diabetes about complications – scary, terrifying, horrible, often painful – complications. Do you really want to open that discussion by blaming people?’
Yes, I know that not everyone with diabetes knows all about complications, and there genuinely are people out there who do not fully understand why screening is important, or what screening looks like. The spectrum of diabetes lived experience means there are people with a lot of knowledge and people with very little. But regardless of where people sit on that spectrum, complications must be spoken about with sensitivity and care.
The covers came off the posters around the room, and I was right. I’d seen it all before. There were stats showing rates of complications. More stats of how much complications cost. More stats of how many people are not getting screened for complications. More stats showing how complications can be prevented if only people got screened.
‘Thanks, I hate it,’ I thought to myself silently.
I spent the next half an hour tearing to shreds everything on those storyboards. We talked about putting humanity into the campaign and remembering that people with diabetes are already dealing with a whole lot, and adding worry and mental burden is not the way to go. I reminded them that telling us again and again and again, over and over and over the awful things that will happen to us is counterproductive. It doesn’t motivate us. It doesn’t encourage us to connect with our healthcare team. And it certainly doesn’t enamour us to whoever it is behind the campaign.
I wrapped my feedback in a bow and sent a summary email to the consultants the following day, emphatically pointing out that I am only one person with diabetes and that my comments shouldn’t be taken as gospel. Rather they should speak with lots of people with diabetes to get a sense of how many people feel. I urged them again to resist using scare tactics, or meaningless statistics. I reminded them that all aspects of the campaign – even those that might not be directed at people with diabetes – will be seen by us and we will be impacted by it. I asked that they centre people with diabetes in their work about diabetes.
But mostly, I reminded that anything to do with complications has real implications for people with diabetes. What may be a jaunt in the circus of media and PR for creative agencies is our real life. And our real life is not a media stunt.
I operate a freelance health consultancy. I was paid for this work because my expertise, just as the expertise of everyone with lived experience, is worth its weight in gold and we should be compensated (i.e. paid!) for it.