Round one to the doctors? PRs assess the battle for public opinion in doctors' strike

As the first of three 24-hour doctors' strikes across England planned by the British Medical Association concluded this morning, public affairs and healthcare PRs questioned by PRWeek were split on whether the doctors or the Government won the battle for public opinion.

Junior doctors: On the picket line yesterday outside Great Ormond Street Hospital in London (credit: John Stillwell / PA Wire/Press Association Images)
Junior doctors: On the picket line yesterday outside Great Ormond Street Hospital in London (credit: John Stillwell / PA Wire/Press Association Images)

"Round one of the strikes goes to the doctors," said Stephen Day, head of UK public affairs at Burson-Marsteller. "There is evidence both anecdotally and from polls that the public has assumed its default stance in any conflict between a cherished group of public sector workers (usually doctors or nurses) and the Government and backed the former."

Future strikes are planned for 26 January and 10 February – with the BMA saying no emergency care would be provided on the latter day. The BMA has said striking is a "last resort" option.

Nonetheless, Day said ministers would be "betting that if the dispute goes on and the public takes more interest in the issues, the Government's line of putting the needs of patients above those of professionals will start to gain traction and shift sentiment away from the doctors".

Bill Morgan, a founding partner at Incisive Health who worked in the Department of Health during the previous government, said he thought that the Government "probably won the media battle, with a lot of support from Fleet Street along the way".

He went on to say: "However, the public takes its lead not only from the traditional press but from TV shows like 24 Hours in A&E and most importantly personal experiences. Junior doctors enjoy enormous reserves of public support as a result – much, much more than politicians do."

Morgan disagreed with Day's assessment that further strikes would turn opinion in the Government's favour: "If I were a minister, I’d be nervous about seeing a second strike, because the public is likely to turn on the Government first."

Ed McRandal, an account director at Insight Consulting Group, had the same view, saying: "There are clear reputational risks for the Government in picking this fight: you only have to look at the well-orchestrated social media campaigns to see where public sympathies lie."

Paul Pambakian, senior account manager in the health team of MHP Communications, said it would not be right to declare victory for either side – yet.

He said: "Any analysis of the negotiating positions – from either side – actually reveals that they aren’t far off from agreement now with the Government holding steadfast and keen to continue with negotiations through ACAS. Yesterday didn’t result in improved credibility for either side and critically didn’t progress the negotiations, which should now be possible. In reality, yesterday was a loss for everyone involved."

Andrew Harrison, director of global healthcare at Hanover, said: "Most health secretaries have a row with the BMA and most end with the doctors getting more money. But this time, the Department of Health has little money to give.

"Given that politicians are among the least trusted individuals, and doctors the most trusted, the DH will be encouraged that its messages are resonating. But it's high stakes and the next strikes will tip opinion one way or the other."

Public opinion appeared before the strike to be on the medical profession's side – a poll commissioned by BBC Newsnight and the Health Service Journal surveyed 869 adults in England and found that so long as doctors provided emergency care, two-thirds of the public (66 per cent) backed industrial action compared with 16 per cent who opposed it. There was also plenty of support for doctors on social media:

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