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Spreading the hygiene message16th of September 2011
Should the industry seek to educate the public on personal hygiene, or should they leave this to impartial experts? We ask hygiene companies whether they are spreading the 'hygiene for health' message – and if it is really their place to do so.
Everyone seems to be a hygiene expert these days. Since the recent E.Coli outbreak in Germany and the swine flu pandemic in 2009 it has become all too easy to gen up on personal hygiene because everyone – from the World Health Organisation to our local soap manufacturer – is telling us how and when we should be washing our hands.
Some organisations are posting information on their websites; others are holding hand hygiene workshops and yet others are going into schools and demonstrating to children how to wash their hands. Obviously, the more people who can be reached via these channels the better. But since hygiene manufacturers have a vested interest and products to sell, is it really their place to educate the public?
The potential for bias is obvious, particularly if a hygiene company promotes its own products in these messages. But as experts in their field, many hygiene companies feel strongly that they have a responsibility to give out such information.
Among these is Tork manufacturer SCA. The company offers hygiene advice and information on its websites as well as via printed material and PR, says SCA European communication manager Alexandra Grubb.
“We do this to increase awareness of the positive effects that hygiene can have - both on our customers and on their clients,” she said. “We also include a hygiene section in our business school as part of our external customer training, and we provide hygiene information and educational campaigns in schools, offices and other environments.”
SCA has a policy in place to step up its hygiene information following any public health scare. “Since the public’s attention is much higher at such times it is an ideal opportunity to increase general awareness of hygiene,” says Grubb. “We link in to official health sites as well as producing our own web content, PR and relevant studies and research.”
SCA does not focus on any specific products in its hygiene information, says Grubb. “We are convinced of the hygiene benefits of using paper towels for the mechanical drying of hands, but in general we tend to focus on hand hygiene and the importance of washing and drying the hands well,” she said.
Vectair marketing manager Matt Wonnacott sees no problem in mentioning the company’s products in hygiene messages if they are relevant to the customer.
“If we receive an enquiry as to how our products can help in the battle against a certain health scare, we would provide the customer with relevant information on those products,” he said. “For example if an interested party is looking to reduce the threat of MRSA due to a recent outbreak and asks what we can supply them - and we have a proven product that can actually reduce the threat of MRSA - then why should we not inform them of this?
“If proven facts link in with information from WHO then I see no issue in advocating certain products.”
However he says Vectair does not condone 'scaremongering' following a health scare. “Placing more emphasis on a health scare than is entirely necessary should be avoided since this can cause unnecessary panic and may increase the likelihood of panic-buying,” he said. “We never wish to promote scaremongering in any shape or form.”
The company keeps a digital file of impartial advice on how hygiene can help keep people healthy. “Customers do require information on hygiene from time to time and this file is available upon request,” he said. “It outlines the key measures that people must take to ensure they maintain optimum hygiene levels.”
Following the 2009 swine flu scare the company sent out emails stating facts and figures from external sources. “We closely follow information from WHO and whatever warnings they issue, we follow these in our communications to our clients, colleagues and contacts,” said Wonnacott.
Kimberly-Clark Professional also sees no issue with mentioning its own products in general hygiene messages. “We mention those products that can help in the reduction of illnesses contracted through poor hand hygiene - typically soap, single-use hand towels and more recently sanitisers and sanitising wipes,” said Richard Millard, office building segment manager EMEA at Kimberly-Clark Professional.
Responsibility to inform
“As a supplier of hygiene products we are seen as being experts in this field and therefore have some responsibility for helping to inform about the benefits of good hygiene.
“All our campaign materials are generally available to be read or downloaded from our websites with no obligation to buy the products. Users can choose to read our information and then buy from other sources.”
Kimberly-Clark Professional has launched a Healthy Workplace Project designed to increase awareness of the benefits of good hygiene to office-based staff. During health scares the company also offers information to customers to support government advice on maintaining good personal hygiene levels. Links to WHO are included on the KC website and specific products are referred to in this information.
Deborah Freeman, PR and corporate communications manager of Deb, feels that it has become widely accepted for hygiene companies to advocate the use of their own products to ward off health threats. “However, our main aim is to educate people on the importance of learning to adopt good hand hygiene practices so we do not advocate specific products,” she said.
Deb offers information in the learning zone of Deb Group’s website while a Deb Support Package includes education and training materials to raise skincare awareness and encourage appropriate use and compliance. “Latest news is also uploaded on to our site and there are newsfeeds within the learning zone section,” said Freeman.
Hygiene information is also available from the ISSA says Keith Baker, ISSA’s director of European services. “We proactively encourage our members to provide well-researched web content to inform, educate and advise the public,” he said.
Through its alliance partners, ISSA in Europe supports hygiene courses managed by organisations such as BICS International and PIGC (Poland) and is currently championing an initiative in Germany whereby kindergarten children will be taught about hygiene.
The association also steps up its information after an outbreak. “For instance, the recent E.Coli scare in Germany led to ISSA publishing authoritative accounts about good hygiene practices on our European website,” said Baker. “We also update our news feed daily so that any topical issue, such as a pandemic, is quickly identified and information for guidance and help is readily available,” he said.
The association feels that releasing heightened hygiene information following a health scare is completely justified. “ISSA acknowledges that part of its role in promoting its members and their products may lead to a commercial opportunity,” said Baker. “But we would rather that eventuality, than to not provide good and authoritative information on public health and hygiene.”
So, is it ethical for a hygiene company to give out hygiene information following a health scare, or could this be seen as scaremongering?
According to Baker: “All ISSA members sign up to a code of ethics and this includes social responsibility. Providing information and education helps to fulfil that responsibility.”
And SCA’s Alexandra Grubb adds: “I believe it is highly ethical and part of our responsibility to produce useful advice for general health - particularly at times of heightened concern.
“We have the knowledge and the expert sources to enable us to talk credibly to the public about the importance of good hygiene practices. However, the purpose should be to alleviate concern and provide information on how people can reduce the risks to themselves and others rather than increase their anxiety in an attempt to sell more products.”