NHS England has pledged to almost double the size of its media relations team to get on the front foot in telling the service's story, with a focus on digital comms and patient engagement.
Another key part of the NHS, the Trust Development Authority (TDA), is in the process of creating a roster of external comms experts and agencies to similarly boost its media relations firepower, PRWeek can reveal.
NHS England interim comms head Stephen Webb said the importance of driving the media agenda on healthcare was illustrated by research (see graph below) pointing to a mismatch between A&E waiting times and media coverage on the issue.
'The NHS is really up there as a domestic story at the moment and things are very politicised. Though we need to recognise the fact there have been performance problems, the continual perception of A&E in crisis creates more political noise and risks preventing wider changes that need to happen.'
NHS England, which has taken on an oversight role in the healthcare system since its restructure in April, is planning to boost its media relations team from seven to 12, by bringing in extra permanent staff and filling vacancies.
For the first time, experience in social media will be explicitly stated as a requirement for the jobs.
'Between the media story and the reality of the data, there can be a big gap. It's about how we fill that gap and tell our own story, which is why online engagement is so important,' added Webb.
Alongside A&E waiting times, there have also been negative media stories following the findings of the Francis Report, the failures of the 111 phone service and revelations of an alleged cover-up at industry regulator the Care Quality Commission.
The TDA is in closed talks to create a roster of external NHS comms specialists to help get its messages out more effectively. The roster, which includes London Communications Agency and Freshwater, will be used across about 100 trusts for PR guidance and assistance with crisis comms.
Steve Gladwin, who heads PR at the TDA, said: 'We need a more proactive stance - it's essential the NHS grasps the nettle to tell its own story.'
LCA study compares A&E waiting with media coverage
Following sustained adverse media coverage on A&E waiting times, London Communications Agency decided to conduct its own research.
The study compared media coverage with A&E waiting times for the period from 7 April 2013 to 16 June 2013.
It found that media coverage was 95 per cent negative and actually increased despite improvements in A&E care.
The research was led by LCA director Stephen Webb, who is currently on a secondment as NHS England head of media relations, following a stint as head of comms for London NHS.
19 June Report suggests Care Quality Commission may have 'deliberately' covered up its own failings.
9 June Coverage peaks over A&E waiting times reaching a nine-year high for the final quarter of 2012.
10 May The media report that the Royal College of General Practitioners says patients have lost confidence in the new 111 non-emergency service.
1 April Major changes in the NHS, including the abolition of Primary Care Trusts and a refocus on GP-led commissioning, kick in.
6 February Francis Report following inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust released.
12 Planned size of the NHS England media relations team*
30 Mainstream media pieces on A&E waiting time during peak coverage**
95% Percentage of coverage on A&E waiting times that was negative**
£20bn The Government's planned NHS efficiency savings by 2015***
Source: *NHS England; **London Communications Agency research; ***www.gov.uk.