In the past month, two separate public sector health bodies have
appointed their first communications directors - a clear sign that the
sector is seeking to improve its public image.
Private health bodies have long been conscious of the need to manage
their reputations. Health insurance firms and pharmaceutical companies
have invested heavily in senior PR staff and external consultancies to
project the image they feel helps achieve business goals.
Publicly-funded organisations have been slower off the mark. Attention
only rests on public sector health PROs when things go wrong. In the
wake of the Bristol baby scandal, Harold Shipman and the removal of the
wrong kidney from an elderly patient, there is a fresh demand for the
implementation of high-level professional communications strategy.
A reluctance to embrace private sector methods, combined with a lack of
resources to invest in non-essential, non-clinical posts means that most
public health bodies have ignored PR for too long.
No more. The Commission for Health Improvement (CHI), a body set up last
November to ensure even standards of care across the country, this week
appointed its first communications director. Matt Tee, who assumes the
post next month, says the health sector is starting to treat
communications with greater respect, and uses as evidence the existence
of senior PROs at bodies as diverse as the London Ambulance Service and
major teaching hospitals. Tee argues that although the bodies have
different objectives - some regulate the medical profession, some seek
to improve it, others simply provide front-line care - they all have the
same aim of sound public health, and good PR can help achieve this.
’At its core our project is to ensure people have faith in the NHS. We
are starting to realise that we have to communicate to our publics not
just when things go wrong, but on a daily basis as things are going
right,’ Tee says.
His appointment comes shortly after the General Medical Council
appointed its own inaugural director-level head of communications. The
body regulates the medical profession in England and Wales, sets medical
school syllabi and can strike doctors from the clinical register. It
sometimes faces claims that its interests conflict, insofar as it is run
by, and for, doctors. Partly to dispel this, it has drafted in Andrew
Ketteringham as director of communications, reporting to the GMC’s chief
When he begins work next month, his job will be to garner coverage for
the GMC in the good times as well as the bad.
CHI chief executive Peter Homa says that when considering staff budgets,
management should take into account the fact that a good PRO costs as
much as two, perhaps three nurses. This partly explains why most
hospitals bolt communications on to someone else’s brief. However, the
CHI - free of the burdens of clinical practice - is planning to make the
necessary investment, hiring a team of up to six staff to support
This move is welcomed by Leigh McGowan, head of communications at
Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham and chairman of the Association of
Healthcare Communicators. McGowan stresses that while it need not be an
either/or situation, he advises a chief executive faced with the choice
of one good PRO or two nurses to plump for the PRO. ’Good communications
can go a long way in making people feel valued, which increases the
ability to retain staff, a major issue in areas of the health sector,’
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) - founded last
year to evaluate drugs and treatments on the basis of clinical value and
cost-effectiveness - treated PR as more than an add-on extra from the
start. Communications director Anne-Toni Rodgers sits on the board as an
executive director and reports to CEO Andrew Dillon. Rodgers’
organisation is new enough not to have established a reputation of any
kind yet, so the most important aspect of NICE’s PR is communicating
internally to doctors.
Rodgers accepts it has taken the public sector some time to catch up
with the private sector on communications spending, but stresses that
those working for state bodies work in a cash-capped environment.
One way round the budgetary problems publicly-funded bodies face is to
place as much of the organisation as possible in the public domain. NICE
holds its board meetings in open session and places all its documents on
its web site as soon as they become available. Talking to the general
public is therefore immediate and truthful, although this raises the
issue of control over information.
The GMC may just be one of the public bodies we love to hate, an easy
target for blame when we are shocked by tragedy. Equally the CHI may
never have a ’sexy’ image, despite its best efforts to improve medical
services on our behalf. However, the fact that both are taking PR
seriously can only bode well for the future representation of the public