18 October 2007

Can Frank still tell the Truth? - our lying drugs propaganda service

Frank is starting to develop real problems with the truth. Frank has often been a stranger to accuracy in the past, but some of Frank’s recent pronouncements have seen Frank drift further from the world of drug facts and into the heady worlds of drug propaganda.

Before we go any further we should disabuse ourselves of the manufactured image of Frank being some kind of avuncular character who understands the foibles of youth but was old enough to impart sage advice. Frank is no such thing. Frank is a branding concept, developed by marketing consultants, tested in focus groups, assessed, reviewed, honed. The brief: hip, but not too hip; funny, but serious; accessible to the youth but don’t alienate the parents; understanding but not overly tolerant.

The evidence is that the marketing consultants succeeded in their aim. Brand Frank was created and supplanted the “National Drugs Helpline” with the Frank logo, website, helpline and campaigns.

Frank however, attempts to fulfil two very different roles. On the one hand, Frank is responsible for delivering the phone-service that was once the National Drugs Helpline. The Government has funded Essentia Group to the sum of £1.45 million in 2006-07 for FRANK (drugs), Sexual Health Line, Drinkline and Know The Score, the Scottish helpline on drugs. The Government can’t say how much Frank helpline actually costs specifically but estimates the cost at around £800,000 in 06-07. To put this spend in to some sort of context, the previous year the Home Office spent almost twice this amount (£1,588,007) in advertising FRANK http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200506/cmhansrd/cm060911/text/60911w2347.htm

According to Government figures, and despite extensive advertising spending, the number of people accessing the Frank Helpline has not increased over the past three years, and the figures for 2006-07 are lower than the previous year, http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmhansrd/cm070719/text/70719w0032.htm

Despite spending significant sums on advertising, only 4,444 under sixteens phoned Frank in 2006-07 – despite the fact that more that at least 40% of young people in this age bracket have experimented with drugs.

The Ask Frank service can deliver good quality information and does, at times, demonstrate a level of imagination and free-thinking. But, too often, Frank call handlers limit their responses to the on-screen information, referring anything more complicated to local drugs services. Frank really doesn’t want to get bogged down on a thirty minute call; Frank’s not set up for it. So Frank would rather signpost the caller on, send some information out or bring the call to an end, rather than undertake more open-ended telephone support.

Such a limited service would be just about acceptable were the Government still funding other services such as Release to undertake more in-depth, open-ended or longer interventions. Unfortunately the Government is no longer willing to do so. They claim that the funding mechanisms that hitherto supported Release no longer exist – and argue that there is no need to fund two drugs helplines. Either way, the Ask Frank service is now the lynchpin of low-level drugs advice to young people and their families in the UK.

But the Frank helpline is just once facet of Frank’s many faces. Because Frank also runs campaigns, places advertisements, and has the Ask Frank website. Frank also lends his name to any of a range of information, resources, materials or events produced locally or regionally.

Frank (the Helpline) and Frank (the advertising and campaign machine) are two very different beasts. Frank (the Campaign Machine) is effectively a manifestation of the Home Office’s drug strategy. Rather than branding resources with the Home Office logo, and making it clear that the information is prepared, vetted and distributed by the Home Office, the illusion is created that it is more independent, more free-thinking, less agenda driven.

But raise questions about content on the Frank Website, in adverts or in publications and all enquiries inexorably lead back to the Home Office. Some content has been externally commissioned; others has been drafted in house and then signed off by other bodies such as the Police or the Department of Health.

Take as an example the recent Frank Action Update, which focussed on Cannabis but was subsequently withdrawn due to serious factual errors. The legal sections (some of which were incorrect) were meant to have been produced by a senior police officer on Merseyside; the sections on reducing cannabis related harm were referred back to Health Advisors in the Home Office.

Ironically, the Frank phone advisors were unaware of the Action Update and, when it was brought their attention, disagreed with the content.

Does it matter that Frank has a Home Office run campaign arm? The answer to this should be a resounding “yes!” It is imperative that people who use drugs, especially young people, should have a source of information that is balanced, impartial, non-judgemental, and above all accurate. This may mean giving people information which is politically sensitive, which runs counter to Government policy, or which is in other respects controversial. Such an approach assists the credibility of the information, and the extent to which young people will retain – and act on this information. To do this information should not be slanted to serve a political agenda, or watered down to make it acceptable to Government.

The Frank branding exercise are intended to create the illusion of this credible, trustworthy and balanced information source. And certainly some call handlers at the Helpline work towards these standards where they can.

But, cynically, having created the illusion of Frank, the Home Office seeks to impart partial truths and untruths about drugs and bolster their credibility by putting Frank’s name on it.

This is a short-sighted approach and hugely damaging. Because as people become aware that the Frank adverts are simply the Home Office dressing up the Government’s messages in yoof clothes, why should anyone trust the Helpline? And if trust in the helpline is diminished, where can young people get this independent and impartial information?

Trust – in organisations like Release (for example) was cultivated over a number of years through action and words. Frank has attempted to nurture the same sort of trust in a fraction of the time through branding and image management.

Having done so, the Home Office seeks to use this trust to promote anti-drug messages, under the guise of the ersatz-honesty of Frank.

Trust in services should be developed over time, through a framework that ensures integrity, accuracy and independence. Trust cannot and should not be manufactured by marketing consultants. Frank hasn’t earned out trust, and doesn’t have these hallmarks to ensure that further pronouncements reach the high standards of accuracy and impartiality we so badly need.

KFx: October 2007

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