*I refer to programme managers, meaning public health professionals

Sometimes I feel stuck in the middle. I sort of fell into what I do because I felt we (young people, my sisters etc) could make a difference in the lives of other young people – specifically young women who were getting pregnant and kicked out of school – that archaic rule that said pregnant girls could not stay in school (despite only having sex ed in the 12th grade!). So my sisters and I coupled that desire to help educate our peers with our passion for writing – or perhaps we’d watched too much Press Gang! – and formed Youth Media, soon followed up by our first publication Trendsetters.

Soon after I learnt about the enter-educate approach – using entertainment to educate your audience. It makes sense – who doesn’t love watching an entertaining programme, or reading an interesting magazine, if you can use those channels to educate people then even better. And when you think about it, they’ve been doing this for years! I learnt a lot of what I know from TV! Law and Order has taught me loads about the legal system (even if not all of it is relevant to Zambia, but you’d be surprised how much is).

Trendsetters was set up in that way. It was a magazine that appealed to young people, dealt with their issues, but also weaved in sexual and reproductive health messages into the different articles. But it wasn’t that simple, there were other factors that made young people make the risky decisions they were making. Yes education was a large part of it, but like all people, young people take many emotional, physical, spiritual and other considerations when making a decision. A huge part that we found played a roll in the harmful decisions young people made was the lack of self-esteem. The mission of Trendsetters became to empower young people to become responsible citizens that made healthy decisions in all aspects of their life.

Trendsetters became a definitive guide for being a young person in Zambia. Since we stopped publishing it (for reasons not worth mentioning here), there has been no publication that has met the needs of young people.

I eventually moved on to work for MTV – creating TV programmes to reach young people globally with HIV prevention messages. In my eight years there we produced a TV film, a couple of drama series, talk shows, documentaries, forums etc.

It was amazing to work with some of the most creative and talented people in the world. I loved every minute of it and learnt so much from them. But what frustrated me, and to some extent the creatives as well, was the clients thinking they were the creatives and telling the producers, directors, writers etc how to do their jobs.

Funnily enough, it never happened the other way. The creatives were pretty grounded with knowing they knew what they knew but were in no way experts at developing an HIV project for young people in rural towns (as an example). I soon realised that I needed to take the middleman role – understanding both sides of the coin – unfortunately it did mean I had to sacrifice what I thought was my passion and instead manage relationships and expectations.

It does get a bit frustrating. On one hand, I do understand why the HIV programme managers wanted to ensure that all the messages were delivered correctly, there has been enough examples of mass media gone wrong. But it also kind of disrespects the creatives. They need to be left alone to do their craft and what they’re good at – creating TV programs to appeal to audiences and keep them engaged and tuned in regularly.

If you put too much of the social good stuff to a script and lose the drama, no one wants to watch a pro-social drama series. But give me ER, Law and Order, Girlfriends, Grey’s Anatomy – all popular shows that have managed to weave in social health messages. It’s about finding the balance. What I’ve seen that works is creating the stories first and then slotting in the sexual health messages. Because let’s face it, sexual health is very much a part of our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not.

There is a place for the SRH programme managers and that’s as consultants. But they are not yet producers, scriptwriters or directors, so should give those experts the opportunity to do what they do, after all, they wouldn’t like it if someone less qualified that them told them what to do would they?

Until then the middlemen like myself will continue to exist, people who understand both sides of the table and ensure everyone gets what they need without frustrating the other. Or there is another way.

At Media 365 we have a process we follow to try to avoid these problems – called Blueprint 365. This is the process we follow to ensure that we know exactly what the clients what before we go and produce anything and based on what the clients tell us – so even as clients, they really need to know what they’re trying to achieve – and we develop it the best way we know how. This is why I believe in starting with the end in mind. What is it that you’re trying to do? You keep asking yourself this question at every stage of the project or programme development to make sure it’s all tying in to the end goal. The inception report that we develop outlines exactly what the key messages are, and what the process is for developing storylines, characters etc. Once these processes are signed off, we can go ahead and create the programme, giving the clients milestone moments for approval – but they also know they only have a certain number of times for feedback or they are charged for additional hours and of course we no longer guarantee the deadline will be met. The reality is that when you don’t plan properly, it is easy to change the goalposts and ultimately someone has to pay for that.

Another organisation that I admire and who definitely keeps the creatives and the programme managers separate is Hollywood Health and Society. They get all the information they need from the programme managers, or might even get in the programme managers to debrief the script writers of some of Hollywood’s biggest shows – like the ones I mentioned above – once the brief is over, the scriptwriters do their thing. The result of the debrief is only seen when the show airs. Of course this is slightly different because the development agency puts no money into the production of the show, when they are paying the production costs they do want to ensure it delivers on all the messages they paid for. But if you remember what I said in the beginning, it’s not that simple. The issues as well as humans, are much more complex than what can be told in a 44 minute programme.

Seeing the holistic picture is much more important. There is only so much a TV show is going to do, and then what? This is really where the programme managers expertise should be focused on. How do we ensure that the information learned from the TV show translates into action? What are the services to support this? If we’re telling people to get tested, where can they get tested? Are the service providers aware that there is a campaign that will push them to get tested? Is there a mechanism for the audience to find more information etc. These are not questions or issues that the scriptwriter or producer will concern themselves with – they are focussed on creating an compelling story that will make the audience think and hopefully reconsider preconceived notions. But programme managers should be thinking about these additional elements if they want their programme to be successful – and not whether the adults (who aren’t even the target audience) think that a love scene is too sexy and if a character could give a (unnatural) public service announcement in their script!

There is a way programme managers and creatives can work together in harmony and that’s by respecting each others roles and working together on the big picture. I look forward to hopefully seeing this work in 2012!

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