Campaign: Freedom of Information
Client: Department of Health
PR team: South East London Strategic Health Authority in-house team
Timescale: November 2002-April 2004
The South East London Strategic Health Authority led a campaign to implement the Freedom of Information Act (FOI) across the NHS in England. As outlined by the Information Commissioner, this Act required all NHS Trusts, surgeries and practices to have a list in place for the public by the end of October 2003, detailing what information they published, how to access that information and at what cost.
For the PR team, this presented the formidable task of engaging more than 600 NHS Trusts and 75,000 independent practitioners - including GPs, dentists, pharmacists and opticians - to encourage compliance.
To raise awareness of the Act to enable its orderly introduction into the NHS based on good understanding, support and recognition of the benefits.
To establish a standardised publications scheme across the organisation and develop a web-based facility to promote discussion and shared learning.
To design a tool for independent practitioners to complete their publication schemes online and encourage those without websites to establish a public presence on the internet.
Strategy and Plan
Realising that it would be impossible to reach all 1.3 million NHS staff in one hit, the PR team created an integrated communications campaign.
This primarily targeted Trust chief executives who, as accountable officers, could face a maximum punishment of two years' imprisonment for non-compliance with the Act.
A number of events were held, including eight regional conferences and 17 implementation workshops.
Trusts and practitioners were also directed to a dedicated website for more information.
The PR team then created postcards carrying messages such as 'Get out of jail free', which were sent to chief executives and distributed at conferences. The aim was to emphasise that the campaign was not an NHS or Department of Health initiative but law, and underline the long-term benefits of compliance.
To grab the attention of independent practitioners, the PR team introduced the NHS's first viral marketing campaign. This comprised an email containing a 'red-tape worm' interactive game, designed to drive the target audience to the FOI website.
Measurement and Evaluation
The web discussion forum received 66,574 hits, and visits to the website totalled more than three million.
In its first week, the worm-landing page received 1,631 hits, with visits reaching almost 2,500 over a seven-week period. This helped generate media coverage in trade titles including Health Service Journal and Computing.
Declaration forms from all 600 relevant NHS organisations in England were submitted to the Information Commissioner to meet a 31 August 2003 deadline. By the end of October, every NHS organisation had complied with the publication scheme.
Despite scare stories about GPs potentially missing the October deadline, publications such as MedEconomics and GP carried a steady stream of articles promoting the website, and more than 3,113 independent practices completed the scheme online.
'I think the NHS provided a lot of information by different means, and there appears to have been sufficient awareness and widespread compliance,' says Dr Gerard Panting, communications and policy director at the Medical Protection Society. 'The model publication schemes set out on the NHS website proved useful, so from that point of view it did a good job.'