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The road to effective advocacy – Top Ten Tips

Public health advocates seek to change upstream factors such as laws and policies that influence the health outcomes of populations. There may be substantial opposition to change – including passive opposition through indifference and active opposition from vested interests.

We know quite a lot about the ‘upstream factors’ which influence the amount people drink and the extent of alcohol-related harm. While there is encouraging community support for action on alcohol, those who seek change to reduce harm from alcohol face opposition in various forms.

The need to effectively advocate for measures that will reduce harms from alcohol is clear, but how do we learn to be effective advocates? How do we learn what experienced and effective advocates know intuitively?

I explored these themes through an independent research project supported by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education’s Ian Webster Scholarship. I gathered information from leaders recognised for their expertise in public health advocacy in Australia and elsewhere, through face-to-face interviews and published literature.

There is no one mould of an effective advocate – different advocates have different approaches which emphasise different skills. However, there seem to be some characteristics that effective advocates share and these may provide direction for advocates-in-training. A selection of these is suggested here.


1 SUPPORT WITH EVIDENCE: Effective advocates understand the science and are able to critically analyse research and research methods. They always stay within the boundaries of the evidence, knowing that to step outside these boundaries could un-do much good work.

2 UNDERSTAND THE POLITICAL ENVIRONMENT: Effective advocates understand the political context. They understand who makes decisions and how decisions are made; the broader agendas of governments; the economic environment; and how public health fits into the political environment.

3 BE NONPARTISAN: Effective advocates don’t put political bias into their work. All political parties can and have acted to improve public health. An advocate’s duty is to work with and educate all parties.

4 DO YOUR HOMEWORK: Effective advocates understand what influences decision makers. They do their homework to find out what a decision maker has said or done before on the issue; what influences them; what others are saying to them; and why they might care about what you have to say.

5 BUILD RELATIONSHIPS: Effective advocates build relationships – with journalists, community champions, influential people within government and others who can work both behind the scenes and publicly to move the issue forward.

6 WORK AS A TEAM: Effective advocates work in teams. They work with others whose skills complement theirs. They identify opportunities for groups to work together, formally and informally.

7 COMMUNICATE: Effective advocates are effective communicators. They communicate research, make scientific information relevant to decision makers and the public, and give it the opportunity to influence policy and programs.

8 PRAISE AND CRITICISE: Effective advocates are prepared to praise and criticise when it’s due. For example, they publicly praise government decisions that are in the interest of public health, and criticise when they’re not. They understand that it doesn’t work to do one but not the other.

9 MAINTAIN YOUR ENERGY: Effective advocates maintain their energy on an issue and help others to do the same. They draw energy from the importance of the issue, the opposition they face and the small wins they plan for and celebrate. They pick people up who have been set back by disappointment, and help others to step back and see the bigger picture.

10 JUST GO FOR IT: Above all, effective advocates learn by doing, reflect on their experiences and stick with it!

Julia Stafford

Julia Stafford is the Alcohol Program Manager at Cancer Council Western Australia.

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