Playing political football

Antony Tiernan loves handling comms for one of England's most notorious NHS trusts. Gemma O'Reilly finds out why

Anthony Tiernan
Anthony Tiernan

St Helier is ‘like the Amy Winehouse of hospitals’, according to its director of comms Antony Tiernan. There are parallels – it has been pilloried in the press and is full of drugs – but Tiernan is referring specifically to the excitement he feels handling its gargantuan PR task. As he says: ‘It must be much more fun advising Amy Winehouse than Cliff Richard.’

It is clear from the start Tiernan does not believe in spin. He is not afraid to tell it like it is. Eight months into the role, he is still relishing handling comms for one of England’s most notorious NHS trusts.

There are plenty of challenges, not least the contrast between the two areas he serves (the two hospital trusts merged nine years ago). St Helier Hospital is in the second worst estate in the country. It is in stark contrast to nearby Epsom, which is considered one of the best places in the country in which to live.

‘It’s not a match made in heaven by any means,’ admits Tiernan. ‘You have to put together two hospitals that are poles apart politically, in terms of what they have to deal with, their sensitivities, and the needs and opinions of patients. There’s also a level of rivalry between the two.’

Tiernan concedes the challenges are different from those he is used to, and that is precisely what prompted his move. He joined Epsom and St Helier after five years at the flagship Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust. During his time there, he was involved in handling comms for the first robotic kidney transplant, and the opening of a £60m children’s hospital. ‘It was one excellent thing after another,’ he recalls. ‘Being opposite Parliament, the phone would ring with Tony Blair or Gordon Brown wanting to come in because you’re launching something.’

But five years there proved enough. ‘It’s amazing to promote great stories all the time and not have it turned on you. And it is easier to do. There wasn’t much reactive or negative news, and I shouldn’t admit it but I like the reactive,’ says Tiernan.

It is a good job he does, because in his current role there is plenty of it. With the hospital constantly dogged by rumours of closure, Tiernan’s time is taken up answering calls from the 12 nearby local papers. The area is also covered by nine different MPs from a variety of political parties, who all have different interests. ‘I hate the phrase political football, but you really are caught in the middle,’ he says. It all adds up to plenty of commentators constantly talking about the organisation.

The trust has also recently launched a review on a possible demerger – the first of its kind in NHS history. It could result in three possible scenarios: no change to the set-up, a demerger, or a divestment.

A decision is expected by the spring.

‘Everyone was always saying we were shutting, so we decided once and for all to look at the way the hospitals are managed,’ says Tiernan.

Whatever the outcome of the review, the future is already looking brighter. The board recently approved plans to invest £140m in St Helier Hospital – the biggest investment in healthcare in the area for years.

Communicating it to the staff is Tiernan’s number one priority: ‘It’s not going to happen tomorrow. And there’s a feeling it’s not going to happen at all. Getting the staff to believe it is a challenge.’

Tiernan’s interest in the health sector is clear. Epsom and St Helier chief executive Samantha Jones says of him: ‘His passion for healthcare shines through. He’s a consummate professional and he’s not afraid of a challenge. He hates anything to do with spin and is always on the case for getting it presented correctly.’

Tiernan responds: ‘I have a belief in the public sector and I have a belief in health.’ He mentions the cancer treatment his brother received as a child, which he says inspired his admiration for the NHS. ‘The NHS saves lives. Of course, sometimes people die when it’s preventable. Mistakes happen. But millions of lives are saved and it needs to be given credit where it’s due.’

This is an understandable bugbear. He cites a case at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital where a woman who had lost both legs in an accident was being fitted with new legs to run a marathon. A journalist rang up and the story focused on the fact that she’d got an infection while she was in hospital, rather than anything else.

He says: ‘I thought, wow. It does have to be better. The NHS is under a very high level of scrutiny.’
But Tiernan is quick to voice his respect for journalists: ‘They have a job to do, we have a job to do, but I believe we can meet in the middle. The NHS has seen real change and I want to be a part of selling that.’

antony tiernan’s turning points

What was your biggest career break?

Joining Breakthrough Breast Cancer in the run-up to the 1997 elections. Breakthrough’s dynamic style and campaigns allowed us to punch way above our weight in Whitehall, Westminster and beyond, giving
us unparalleled influence on policy and debate.

What advice would you give anyone climbing the career ladder?

Work hard and take on as much responsibility as you can, but without compromising your standards and attention to detail.

Have you had a notable mentor?

I’ve worked with many influential and inspiring people, but if I had to pick one I’d say Delyth Morgan, former CEO of Breakthrough and now Baroness Morgan of Drefelin. She led Breakthrough from being a unknown charity to one that raised millions of pounds a year, with the support of celebrities and the ear of politicians.

What do you prize in new recruits?

Flexibility. The NHS is ever-changing – anyone who works in NHS comms must be able to adapt quickly.


CV

2008 Director of comms, Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust

2004 Deputy director of comms, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust

2003 Communications manager, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust

2001 Communications manager, The Waterways Trust

1999 Campaigns manager, Depression Alliance

1997 Secretariat and adviser, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Breast Cancer

1996 Public affairs and parliamentary officer – Breakthrough Breast Cancer

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