NHS London is seeking 65 PR professionals to revolutionise the capital's primary care trusts (PCTs), in what recruitment consultants believe to be one of the biggest communications job hunts of the year.
The dozens of new recruits will help communicate the changes taking place to healthcare in London, such as the introduction of controversial polyclinics.
The appointments are likely to mean that the capital's PCTs will turn to PR agencies less often.
London's 31 PCTs have an average of just 2.4 communicators each, compared with 4.2 per PCT in the south west of England. Many London PCTs plan to almost double the size of their comms teams, taking the total figure from 72 to 137.
NHS London admitted that 'for many years comms in NHS PCTs have lagged behind local government and even hospital trusts in terms of resources and skills' and that previously there had been 'no incentives for PCTs to invest in comms'.
NHS London director of comms Stephen Webb said: 'We need to convince people that changes are in their interests and are driven by doctors and nurses who know what they're talking about. We want to get slicker in the way we communicate.
'I do have a concern when people rely on PR agencies when something could be sorted out in the longer term. For me, spending lots of money on agencies doesn't work.'
Webb stressed that no new budget would be created to pay for the 65 additional staff.
As well as getting the message across about polyclinics, NHS London aims to improve its social marketing to help prevent ill-health.
Despite the potential impact on outsourced comms business, agencies acknowledged that NHS London's in-house capability needed developing.
London Communications Agency account manager Kate Fisher said some London PCTs were 'woefully under-resourced in comms' but called for 'bold, creative, proactive ideas' rather than 'PR people sitting behind desks'.
Freshwater Healthcare director Louisa Desborough said: 'It's imperative that PCTs in London up their game.'
Verve MD Tony O'Regan added: 'PCTs are in a similar position now to the London boroughs back in the 70s.'
He also insisted there would still be a role for agencies: 'There will still be a need for marketing, community relations, public affairs and consultation specialists, and much of this on a short-term project basis.'
HOW I SEE IT - Vivien Hepworth, Chief executive, Grayling
My observation when I was in the NHS was that there was a real gap in communications, particularly at PCT level.
I well understand the need to recruit. What worries me is it will be met by cynicism about spin and complaints that the money could be better spent on services.
It is so hard to explain that you will save a lot of money in the end by communicating professionally.
It isn't necessarily bad news for agencies - PR professionals will know when they need them. But can I make a plea for a simpler contracting system? Please don't turn procurement into a marathon.