NHS – Calling all PR miracles
The NHS needs a makeover, an image overhaul, a transformation, a…call it what you may but the brand NHS has never needed more attention than it does today.
Surely, this suggestion should come as no surprise to anyone living in the UK; given media reports on mismanagement, medical negligence and financial ambiguity have been linked to Britain’s public healthcare system for decades. But, 2013 has been particularly brutal for the NHS image as it comes under fire for scandals such as the Mid Staffordshire hospital deaths, Liverpool Care Pathway review, and the Care Quality Commission cover-up – all massive blows to the dwindling credibility on which the cash-strapped behemoth today stands.
The above incidents along with hundreds others related to poor health services have prompted lengthy investigative reports and reviews, only to result in appalling statistics shaking the NHS structure and bringing in more resignations than solutions. Political angst and mud-slinging between Labour and the Coalition have not been discreet either, subjecting the institution to international scrutiny, and criticism.
Lost in the middle is the NHS identity, which has taken a massive beating. But with NHS operating on a budget which is already well below what is required to survive – let alone function effectively, room for improving public relations is not viewed as priority.
Case in point is the reaction a BBC investigation on NHS PR spending received earlier this year for what critics argued were funds, ‘spent on medical doctors, rather than spin doctors’. According to the report, NHS in London spent £13m on public relations over the last three years. It found 82 press officers on the public payroll, as compared to eight press officers working in the entire NHS in 1981.
NHS was also criticised in 2012 for hiring a Head of Brand on an annual wage of nearly £100,000 to ensure its logo was used correctly. The appointment was opposed by public and government ministers alike who reportedly blamed NHS for a ‘frivolous’ waste of money on an ‘unnecessary post’, especially during a financial crisis.
While spends are understandably criticised, it is worth considering what benefits the right kind of PR can bring to the table, especially at a time when (as polls indicate) more than half the country’s population have little or no trust in the NHS.
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations chief executive Jane Wilson was quoted defending the use of PR agencies in response to the BBC report: ‘NHS public relations professionals work directly with health care professionals to ensure issues such as wellness and healthy living campaigns are properly communicated.
‘These campaigns aim to save the amount of time and public money spent on public health issues which can be prevented at source by information provision and the raising of awareness.’
In agreement is industry body Public Relations Consultants Association (PRCA): ‘As the health service faces imminent structural changes, the NHS and its trusts need good public relations – now more than ever. The NHS needs to communicate effectively to the public and patients what these changes mean for them. In addition, PR provides a crucial tool in tackling health risks and explaining how the health service can help. Therefore it is perfectly sensible that some London NHS trusts have used PR consultancies to provide extra support for their PR activities when crucial specialist advice is necessary.’
Both points are valid, but one can’t ignore the cost PR adds up to, especially with NHS operating in a financial crunch. Rather than employ a large team and hire different PR agencies to manage its reputation, would NHS hospitals be better off focusing their efforts on an integrated public relations approach where the objective is to communicate truthfully, rather than incessantly.
What do you think?
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I think the NHS I know and the NHS you describe are on different planets. The NHS I know is generally efficient, helpful and gives me the treatment I need at a price the nation can afford. That is not to say it is faultless but it has served me well, and I am one who has experienced a wide variety of treatment.
The NHS you describe is the NHS of the right wing media, which seem to be harnessed to serve right wing interests and pile up all the worst possible reports on the NHS, with emphasis on scandal, not truth. If there is bad news, the dictum is to report it and to make sure what is reported is told in the worst possible way. If the Francis report says it is incorrect to discuss unnecessary deaths but some other headline does discuss unnecessary deaths, then keep on reporting the headline. Just throw in the word “alleged” from time to time (not too often!) but keep on reporting it and even the BBC will start believing it. In fact even the Guardian has started to believe that one, despite Professor Francis saying that the statistics should not be used in this way.
Of course the aim of all this negative reporting by the right wing press is to privatise the NHS. This is a con trick of massive proportions. On the one hand the NHS is said to be so bad it is scandalous, on the other hand companies want to buy it up because it is so good! But first they have to convince the world it is bad and then they wish to show that when they have handled it for a year or two they will have turned it round and made it good! More likely they will have asset stripped it and returned the unprofitable bits to the public domain.
So returning to your question, does the NHS need an image makeover, the answer is definitely yes. The NHS needs and deserves a good image. It needs to be appreciated for what it does well and developed/ managed for what it does badly. Its huge number of successful treatments need to be boasted about. Its position in international league tables needs to be understood and its best achievements need to be trumpeted. The Commonwealth Fund Report regularly gives the NHS a good billing. How many people know that? Or rather why do so few people know that? If we live in a society that is unequal, that has far too many poor people, and if we allow rubbish food to be promoted excessively then we will tend to have bad health. The fact that we do quite well (but not very well!) in league tables of health is actually a tribute to the NHS because our health is generally quite good despite inequality, poverty and bad diet. But if we just look at where we are in the league tables and blame our position on the NHS then the NHS looks bad. So the right wing aim to maintain inequality, to perpetuate poverty and to flog us bad food is ideally suited to producing sufficient ill health that can (unfairly) be blamed on the NHS, thus softening it up for privatisation.
So the NHS that most of us experience and love has sufficient faults that it can be slagged off mercilessly, but its good points vastly exceed the bad ones that are the only ones that ever get reported. This needs to be understood by the nation, understood by the politicians and it needs to be presented in such a way that the scandalous behaviour of MPs in the way they debate the NHS should become a thing of the past. If better PR can make this happen then let there be better PR. The cost will be money well spent because it will enable us to avoid all the costly reform we currently put up with every other year and we can get on with making the NHS into the best possible health service.
Your points are very valid and you're right NHS 'deserves' a good PR makeover. Let's hope it happens fast, and efficiently. Thanks for writing in Peter.
Thank you. I never thought I would be arguing in favour of expenditure that is not directly related to medical treatment and indeed when I started writing my comment I was just seething with anger over the bad press the NHS has not deserved but has had to suffer. But as I wrote I realised that the NHS needs to be looked after so it can be seen that it is fulfilling its mission. Where are the mission statements? Where is the assembled evidence that the mission is mainly being achieved? And where is the sober discusision of the points where the mission is not being achieved, with development of policy to turn lack of achievement into achievement?
All good points. As PRCA is quoted saying: ‘..the NHS and its trusts need good public relations – now more than ever.’
I disagree with Peter. I am a UK citizen and my experience of the NHS has been dire. I caught an MRSA infection whilst bing treated fir a broken leg. The standard of nursing care was abysmal and lacked c ompassion. Then a dental operation carried out by foreign doctors failed because partly because they could not speak Englsh, had to be repeated and left my cheek permanently marked. My wife received horrendous laser treatment on her eyes which left her temporarily blind and with long-tem damage. Finally, we strongly suspect a grandparent was put on the Liverpool Pathway programme which effectively cstarved him to death. The only thing that has stopped us calling for an investigation is the trauma that this might cause my wife.
I would welcome a wholesale review of health provision in the UK. Too many on the left have this nostalgic, romantic view which does not correspond with reality.