Kate Nicholas: Patients will pay if NHS staff are not briefed

If I worked in NHS media relations, I’m sure there would be days when I just wouldn’t want to get out of bed, never mind pick up a paper.

The sheer volume of negative stories at a national policy level would be enough to make most corporate comms directors blanch, never mind the almost daily emergence of horror stories ranging from MRSA rates to malnutrition in NHS nursing homes.

The external relations challenges are vast and must seem all-consuming, but what about doing internal communications for the third largest employer in the world? Now that's a challenge.

There are around 1,000 PROs who have to fend off a hostile
media and develop links with patients and local stakeholders, while working across different trusts. Meanwhile they must also try to make sense of the relentless round of government initiatives for their bewildered staff, minimising disillusionment and striving to build employee loyalty.

These staff see their employer vilified almost daily – which must erode self-confidence in their choice of career at quite a profound level, no matter how strong their vocation. They are also left trying to make sense of a period of unparalleled change in the NHS, rumours of redundancies and allegations of mismanagement.

Such is the focus on deficits these days that even when a trust is sitting on a surplus, any attempt to be more efficient will set staff panicking that their employer is in trouble. And the Freedom of Information Act is only increasing the number of negative stories.

At the same time, staff are being interviewed about their roles and forced to fill out endless questionnaires as part of the drive to standardise pay.

Against this backdrop, probably the biggest challenge is reaching a staff large enough to populate a small country, including not only full-time employees but also agency personnel. And what about the frontline workers such as cleaners and porters, whose roles are critical to maintaining standards and getting problems such as MRSA
under control? Such staff have little access to email newsletters or intranets and aren't going to attend monthly management meetings.

It is all too easy for the media to jump up and down about paying for PR staff instead of hospital beds, but if the current jumble of government policy isn't communicated to the workers who change the drips and clean out the bedpans, it will be patients who pay.

kate.nicholas@haynet.com

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