PR – Fluffy, Spin And Overpaid Codswallop

I have heard all those descriptions for Public Relations in the last two weeks. Now-in the interests of transparency – I have an interest in a PR company. I also have a background in communications.  But for me, while accepting that the general perception of PR people has not been helped by some really bad examples, any charity or public sector body who ignores PR is on a road to trouble.

Like many of the new Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). These new GP led organisations took over key health provision on 1 April this year including planning and buying local health services. And from 2 April the Department of Health messaging on these services appeared to move to blaming local GPs for every ill in the health service.

So – from a reputation reason alone – CCGs need to consider securing PR support. From now on every failure in provision will be met with ‘local, local, local’. Perception or reality won’t matter – GPs are about to be the bad guys (most people will never know what the NHS Commissioning Board Area Team is – but they know where their GP is when they want to complain or carry a placard!)

But PR is more than that. The word ‘relations’ is key. For CCGs engaging with their communities to jointly develop health provision is a key part of their reason for being. Building trust is essential. Doctors should be using all aspects of PR; press, social media, web etc. to build relationships with their patients.

At the simplest, as a resident covered by the newly formed High Weald Lewes Haven CCG (catchy), I would have expected to see a range of local press articles about my local NHS provision – who runs it; how I can reach them; where my money goes (is it all going into the hands of private companies?) It is only because I work broadly in the field of policy that I knew to look for the CCG website. I was looking because I was trying to raise concerns about the failure of the 111 system which left me feeling alone and scared with a sick baby at 3am in the morning. I kept getting cut off and I did not know where else to go. For the record I have the best GP practice in the world with GPs I trust totally – but even with this, and being confident in navigating the system, for that scary time my partner and I were totally on our own.

And that is at the crux on why PR matters to these new groups. Patients should never feel alone. Doctors need to give information to their patients – on access to services, on their care – and to get information from patients – on their needs, on their experiences. If the information exchange is wrong it can literally be a matter of life and death. If trust breaks down patients can make bad decisions – calling for help to late or escalating the care they need too soon. Working together outcomes improve and, with mutual respect and trust, patients and clinicians can work together to redesign more effective services.

So what would be the 7 top PR tips for newly formed CCGs?

  1. Identify all the local papers (including free, online and directories) that cover your area. As a starter for 10 get a basic press release with your web details, a lead contact and a short summary of who you are, what you are now responsible for and ways that people can learn more.
  2. Set up Twitter and Facebook accounts and use them. Increasingly this is the chosen method of communication for a large part of your population. Remember that they are two way – a great way to get information back in. Just be clear on what  cannot be done via these mechanisms.
  3. Consider the language load of all the materials that you use. There is a reason that The Sun has a reading age of 8 years. Too many NHS and GP generated materials are not accessible by many of the population. Keep it simple.
  4. Talk about what your services mean to the user. What do ‘your’ priorities mean to ‘me’? Here is a great example of a well thought out CCG plan. As a policy wonk knowing the pressures the CCG are under I appreciate just how good it is. But as a parent what explicitly does it mean to me that immunisation rates are higher? What does it mean to me that services in community are to be doubled? Interestingly the best descriptor of what the services meant to me was a very clear statement that I am much more likely to be able to choose where I die!
  5. Map the routes to get your key audiences. Can you send out information on how to access local children’s health services out to schools to get to parents? Can you use youth workers and youth groups to get information on teenage health direct into hands of young people who need it? Does every church have information on your services? Who are the most effective charities on your patch?
  6. Explain who is who in words everyone can understand.  This is not a terrible start but buried in web maze and it is still difficult to follow what each of these groups means to me.  And, once you are clear on the who is who, work together on communications so that your messages are seamless to your shared constituents. Maybe set up a pan agency PR and communications group?
  7. Consider getting professional communications help. It is an investment that is worth the outlay. Patients accessing the right care for their needs. Better designed services with reduced missed appointments. Patients being more confident in self-care. Reducing the risk of patients taking the wrong drugs or not following treatment regimes. All these are based on better communications. Greater trust.

I’d like to state again – for the record and because with 4 kids I use them an awful lot – my GPs are great. And that is in part why I want them to have greater communications support; because I want everyone to know it!

So CCGs please don’t see PR as fluffy, spin or overpaid codswallop. PR. Lifesaving, supporting, efficient. Better words I feel.