Shouting in the wind: the realities of NHS campaigning

The message about the NHS could not be clearer: it's sick. Doctors warn they would worry if their families were taken ill.

Are health campaigners shouting in the wind?
Are health campaigners shouting in the wind?

People die on trolleys in hospital corridors. Cancer patients have their operations cancelled because there aren’t enough beds.

You would think, then, that getting the messages out there that the NHS was failing because of the wastefulness of pursuing the path to marketing comprehensive healthcare would be easy.

Far from it.

It’s in the nature of campaigning PR that one faces some common problems, but when trying to get a view across about the NHS there are unique challenges.

The common ones are easy to spot and would be easy to fix. A budget greater than three figures per quarter, for one.

NHS campaigning relies almost exclusively on voluntary donations. It shares this reality with many charities.

But lack of money isn’t just irritating, it frames the way comms has to operate.

Then there’s the prevailing campaigner stereotype. NHS campaigns suffer the same opprobrium of many sharing the values of the left: the ‘loony lefty’ tag.

You have to spend careful weeks persuading a journalist your organisation is not ‘unreliable’ as a source simply because it is left leaning. Meanwhile, NHS England has buildings full of people just like me - but with radically different approaches to the NHS - churning out releases daily.

That makes the job of getting campaigner’s views published all the harder. A double whammy.

The biggest unique problem is the NHS itself: people cannot imagine life here without it or the principles it embodies, and simply don’t think about it unless it is in a headline, or if they or their loved ones become ill enough.

For years, people have been saying the same thing: the NHS is in danger; act now.

For years, most people have simply not believed them, despite the mounting evidence of cracks turning to chasms, strain sliding into breakdown.

The NHS is this country’s most cherished single institution. The quantum leap in thinking it takes for people to realise the state it is truly in, and how much worse it can get, is a paradigm shift in perception that would tax any PR operation. Most come to it only when it hits home locally.

The best solution to these problems are the campaigners themselves.

The dogged determination, resolve and strength of character of these people inspires and encourages me.

The NHS is the very best of us. NHS campaigning reflects that, and offers the greatest hope to save it.

Alan Taman is the campaigns and media officer for Keep Our NHS Public, Doctors for the NHS and Health Campaigns Together

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