Defending NHS PR - Medical Doctors vs Spin Doctors

Earlier this month the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) of which I’m a Member, released a statement criticising the TaxPayers Alliance for ignoring the role of public relations in delivering life changing and lifesaving work.

In the statement, the CIPR spoke out in defence of NHS investment in PR and Comms staff, which had been branded “unnecessary” and “wasteful” by the Alliance. The negative branding arose from a report which claimed that £34m was invested in 826 PR staff across the health service last year. For the most part I agreed with Sarah Pinch FCIPR, CIPR President Elect, who argued that professional PR support was essential to a health service that was tasked not only with delivering care, but also engaging fully with the public and stakeholders and running public health campaigns (such as blood/organ donor drives, flu vaccinations, smoking cessation, etc.) and that it would actually be wasteful for these tasks to lie with clinical professionals.

It’s not the first time public spend on PR has been attacked. As I’ve blogged before, councils, including our own, are regularly pulled up on their budgets in this area. But with each day bringing a supposed new “crisis” in our health service, most notably local A&E departments, it’s understandable that people would question such spend. At a time when the NHS has to make savings of £20 billion, does it really need communications professionals? Or more to the point, can it afford them?

This time last year, a BBC investigation revealed the details of the annual London NHS spend on PR: a total of £13m and it sent shock waves across the country. Under most fire was the spend on branding, for which Chelsea Children’s Hospital paid a marketing company £10,620 to design a logo and branded merchandise. Defending the spend, a spokeswoman said that patients relate to the branding which “helps create an environment where they felt safe and comfortable”.

The debate isn’t one that I automatically become defensive on, because I see myself as a “Comms Professional.” I am also a member of society and an NHS end-user, albeit not a regular. However the issue did hit home to me last Friday when I was called to an accident at my son’s school and faced the prospect of rushing my only child to Accident and Emergency, for the first time in his short life.

I had spent weeks listening to radio shows, media commentary and social media scaremongering and so I envisaged a packed Emergency Department, with people left failing on trollies in corridors, with doctors tearing their hair out and nurses crying. Despite the fact that my son was bleeding and swelling, I wondered if it might be best to bring a sleeping bag to ease the wait before he might be seen by a doctor.

How wrong I was. Upon arriving to a busy waiting room we were sent to triage immediately and assessed by a nurse. He was given pain relief straight away. We were then scheduled to see the cosmetic dentist as soon as possible, which turned out to be just 30 minutes wait. This half hour gave me time to peruse my surroundings. The Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children is a pretty nice place, for a hospital.

It’s welcoming, colourful and pretty efficiently run from what I could see. There are things in there that I know cost money. Money that wasn’t spent on clinical staff. But my son has Aspergers and this was a very traumatic experience for him. So the colourful signposts, the wall mural telling the story of your hospital visit, the informative leaflets, all of this costs money and a communications department to orchestrate. Thankfully, he will be ok (thanks to Mother Nature giving us all a second set of teeth anyway) but the visit made me realise something:

I was afraid to bring my child to hospital as much as I was afraid to not bring him.

Why? Because the local NHS comms staff hadn’t been able to direct or defy the onslaught of negative coverage coming their way recently. Not that I can claim the coverage to be unfounded. I simply don’t know. Change obviously needs to happen and a public service must be transparent about that with the people who pay for it. But our health service also needs experienced professional communicators to bridge the gap between the NHS and a 24-hour hungry mass media, to ensure that we, the public, get access to accurate and up-to-date information on crucial health matters.

Even if my son had waited many hours to be seen, I wouldn’t begrudge the other elements of the hospital environment that made our visit that bit easier. And I certainly wouldn’t begrudge more PR staff to ensure no one is ever frightened to seek medical help in an emergency because clearly, on some occasions such as mine, that fear is unfounded.

For a first-hand view by a previous board member of the CIPR and ex-NHS Comms Director, you might enjoy this article too.