Kate Nicholas: Hewitt's gaffe widens the credibility gap

Does she think that the public are completely stupid? I refer of course to the insult to the intelligence delivered by Patricia Hewitt when she claimed the NHS has just enjoyed its best-ever year.

This is despite an ever-deepening financial crisis with thousands of jobs cut, a massive overspend and the continuing horror stories about patient experiences, ranging from MRSA to malnutrition among the elderly.

You would have thought that by now the Government departmental PR experts would have grasped the potential dangers of 'cognitive dissonance'. This is the reaction when an individual is fed information that is inconsistent with his or her strongly held beliefs or experience. Take for example a frontline nurse struggling to marry all this good news with the daily reality of work overload, only to find his job gone. Or consider a parent who finds it hard to reconcile Hewitt's feel-good factor with the fact that he has to travel half-way across the country to obtain cancer care for his child.

In such cases, Hewitt's protestation that the NHS has never had it so good will be perceived as at best irritating and at worst deeply distressing. Either way, the cognitive dissonance is deafening.

Hewitt's upbeat diagnosis can never be accepted as real information, and will only motivate said individuals to do whatever is easiest to make sense of what is presented - i.e. turn off the TV, throw the paper in the bin and dismiss her pronouncements as deluded spin.

The fact that she was able to reel off statistics about waiting times doesn't matter. What we are talking about here in PR terms is the perception gap. It's pretty basic psychology but the public sector isn't alone in not getting it.

Witness McDonald's. The fast-food chain has been in marketing overdrive since management realised that the obesity time bomb was about to blow up in their faces - trying to convince us not only that McDonald's is a reasonable 'restaurant' choice for the health-conscious but, contrary to popular opinion, a caring and cuddly employer as well.

This week McMakeover announced a brand-new Bigger Big Mac in celebration of the World Cup. Forty per cent bigger than a standard Big Mac, the super-size burger provides over half a person's recommended daily intake of saturated fats and, taken together with a large milkshake and fries, clicks up a grand total of 2,000 calories.

Anyone for a helping of cognitive consistency?

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