The value of public relations in the NHS

In the first of a two-part special blog, our latest associate recruit David Powles reflects on the latest public satisfaction survey into the NHS and gives his view on why NHS comms and public relations (PR) is so important.

Having worked as a journalist in regional media for the past 23 years, and only spent the last three months working in PR comms, it’s probably fair to say I come at things a bit differently to many in this sector. In every single one of the newsrooms I have worked in, in the North-West, West Midlands and latterly East Anglia, the press has often been lambasted by those within the NHS for not being positive enough.

And as editor for the Eastern Daily Press newspaper and website for six years up to last September, this was certainly a regular complaint that would come our way. In some ways it was justified. I’m sure every person reading this will be acutely aware the media will always veer towards stories that could be classed as negative. At times they veer too far into negative territory, at other times that is what holding power to account is all about.

I know many journalists, rightly or wrongly, subscribe to the view that their job is to find the stories PR people want to keep hidden, whilst the PR person’s job is to try and get coverage for the stories they want to be seen.

However, I also know there are plenty of journalists, and I was one of them, who would love to write many more positive stories about the NHS and, more importantly, the people working within the organisation. And, with the latest British Social Attitudes survey showing public satisfaction in the NHS is at an all-time low, now is the time to make sure we shine an even brighter light on the many people doing superb work to help others, in what are very challenging circumstances.

Whenever my old team would write a big, but negative, story about an NHS trust, I always knew that many working within the sector would view it in one of two ways. They could see it as welcome pressure being placed on the powers-that-be, media playing the role that they rightly should in scrutiny and take the view that if the media didn’t highlight these failings, nothing would ever change. Or they might be very protective of the work they and their colleagues do and not welcome the perceived criticism of their sector.

With that in mind, we’d often try to balance out any particularly negative stories by writing in the ‘leader’ (the newspapers’ opinion section), that we understood many of the problems being highlighted were the fault of the ‘system’, not those passionate, hard-working people within the NHS administering the care.

As an editor, I would have loved to have run positive stories, about great people, doing great work and saving people’s lives every single day. And this is where I’m going to throw open the challenge to the sector I’m currently working in. Are we doing enough to shine a light on those amazing NHS achievements? Are we making it clear enough to those working in hospitals that their positive stories are sought after? And just because there has been some negativity journalists understand that it’s not all bad and you have a story worth celebrating? Do management and staff, who don’t have experience in PR, know what to flag-up as positive stories, when to highlight them and how? 

I appreciated it’s difficult. People working within the NHS are very busy people. They might not always have time to pick up the phone or write an email highlighting their or their colleagues’ great work to save a life. Many will also be too proud to even think it is worth highlighting. ‘I’m just doing my job,’ they’ll humbly proclaim. But behind so many amazing life-saving feats within our NHS – are incredible people, with incredible stories to tell.

At Blue Lozenge we try to maintain very close contact with those organisations and staff we’re representing so that, if there’s a story to be told, we know about it. However, I’m still sure there is much more great work going on in the NHS that the public should know about and would like to know about.

We in the sector must work even harder to let NHS staff know what makes a good story and why there’s value in reminding journalists, and therefore subsequently the public, what a phenomenal job doctors, nurses and everyone else in the NHS does day-after-day.

Coming soon – Part 2: The secrets to getting your story told.