PR in the NHS

At a time when the five Health Trusts in Northern Ireland need to make combined savings of up to £70 million in their health care budgets, it is understandable that people question where the NHS money is spent. A common debate is the NHS’ spending on Public Relations.

PR is usually one of the areas that is attacked when it comes to NHS expenditure. For example, Jonathan Isaby, CEO of the Taxpayers Alliance stated in 2014, “Taxpayers expect the health budget to be spent on real doctors, not spin doctors.”

CIPR were quick to defend the role of Healthcare Communicators believing their role involves “Life changing and lifesaving work.” The NHS needs to engage with the public and tackle healthcare issues. This cannot be done without professional PR support, PR is not just about ‘spin’.

From my placement year, working as a Communications Intern in the South Eastern Trust, I learnt the importance of PR in the NHS and witnessed first-hand the misconceptions associated with working in PR.

For example, when I was seen attending events taking photographs or filming, people often said, “Your job seems so fun and easy taking photos and using Facebook.”

However, people do not realise the amount of time and effort put behind photographs: arranging large and often reluctant groups of people for a group photograph, gathering accurate information to accompany the photo in a press release, editing on Photoshop when necessary. Also, the time taken to film and direct original footage along with editing and gaining approval from the organiser before anything is released. There is a lot more effort, time and skill needed behind the scenes!

Below is a summary of what a NHS Press Officer Role entails, proving PR is not just about ‘spin’:

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Without Public relations staff in the NHS the following questions may arise:

1. Who would update the public on important issues?

Who is going to inform the public about the pressures on the Emergency Department this winter? If people are not aware of their own minor injuries unit open times or the self-help resources to use at home, they are most likely to visit busy A&E Departments and increase the pressure on staff.

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2. Who is going to recognise and promote staff’s achievements?

The NHS employs approximately 64,000 staff in Northern Ireland. Press Officers in the NHS source and publish good news stories on the fantastic work staff do. Recognising staff achievements creates a high moral and sense of appreciation among staff, which leads to a more passionate workforce who want to strive to work to these standards.

The PR team in the NHS also share patient’s positive experiences that may have otherwise not been printed by journalists who usually favour bad news stories that get more hits. Highlighting a patient’s positive experience can boost the Trusts reputation.

3. Who would keep employees and the public up to date on events and important information?

PR professionals in the NHS inform the public and staff of innovations within the trust through various communication channels. Without a PR, who would inform the local population of key decisions within the Trusts, such as the recent cost saving proposals?

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PR is also used to promote important health awareness campaigns such as cancer and stop smoking campaigns, raising awareness of signs and symptoms and the help available in the local area which can be lifesaving.

4. Who would manage Reputation?

Public Relations is all about managing reputation– protecting, maintaining, building and managing reputation.

A strong reputation is important for the NHS, considering the amount of bad publicity it usually receives. If the NHS did not hire PR professionals who would handle the 24-hour demand for news and answer the medias queries promptly and correctly? Certainly not front line staff would not have the time or experience to do this. PR professionals in the NHS help shield staff and patient’s identity from the media and some cases stop unethical stories being printed- helping to avoid a crisis.

It is especially important that the NHS has a good reputation as this attracts the right staff and builds good moral amongst the people that work there.

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As Bill Gates famously said, “If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on public relations.” This emphasises that even if money is low, it is crucial to keep investing in PR to ensure a large organisation such as the NHS is run effectively.

There are endless reasons why PR is central to achieving effective healthcare. The NHS needs the resources, both internal and external, to enable this.

So, is PR in the NHS a waste of money? Definitely not.

Elizabeth Owens is a final year BSc Communication, Advertising and Marketing student at Ulster University. She can be contacted on Twitter @eowens12_ or LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/elizabethowens32/ 

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