By Mary-Louise Clews on 5 April 2016
What the Department of Health needs from its new comms chief
This week we learned the Department of Health is looking for a new comms chief to replace former Times health editor Sam Lister, who is moving to a new role at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills in the summer.
Whatever your views on Lister’s tenure, it seems clear the new hire will need to be a PR alchemist of the highest order to simply survive the first 100 days. Even if the junior doctor dispute is somehow resolved by then, the lacerating blow it has dealt to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his Government’s reputation on handling the NHS is likely to continue to cause a monster headache for any spin doctor.
So what will the lucky candidate need to be able to do in their first 100 days to survive and thrive? Here are Journalista’s top three absolute priorities for their intray:
1. Win back clinical trust
Government relations with NHS clinicians have always been fraught, but recent DH policy has put it at an all-time low. Even before the junior doctor fiasco, clinicians across the acute frontline made headlines following an embarrassing social media campaign – #Imworkingjeremy – that ridiculed Jeremy Hunt’s assertion they didn’t work at weekends.
Hunt has seemingly lurched from one PR blunder after another – it would previously have been unthinkable that we would be facing a full junior doctor walkout, including A&E, now scheduled for later this month.
The new comms chief will have to spend some time listening to and (rapidly) learning from the frontline, before coming up with a bullet-proof strategy to win back clinical support.
This will mean trying to take some of the adversarial heat out of some key relationships, not least with the BMA.
2. Scrutinise the numbers
The DH has said the potential candidate does not need a health background per se (although this would obviously be an advantage).
However, you would hope that DH is ruthless in assessing potential candidates’ grasp of figures, given that the role frequently involves presenting complex data.
The Government lost even more credibility in its battle with the BMA over the junior doctor contract when it allowed its key frontmen – Hunt and medical director Sir Bruce Keogh – to use questionable statistics on avoidable deaths to back up its case for a “seven-day NHS”.
The PR disaster led to stories that Hunt had misled Parliament and his DH team were playing ‘fast and loose’ with the stats to try and win a media battle. The Secretary of State even came in for acerbic criticism from Fiona Godlee, editor of the esteemed BMJ, who accused him of misrepresenting a study published in the journal.
Having run the media relations for hospital performance data analysts Dr Foster for the last few years, and even specifically dealing with data around so-called ‘avoidable deaths’ we know how key it is to get this stuff right. The new chief can and must do much, much better.
3. Remember the audience
Throughout the junior doctors’ dispute, there has been a noticeable ratcheting up in tension not helped by some of the language used in official pronouncements emanating from the Department.
Lambasting the BMA – and by extension, their 45,000 junior doctor members – as “desperate and irresponsible” might sound good in the special advisors’ office, but goes down like a lead balloon with the swathe of the medical profession opposed to the new contract.
When members of your own political party are calling your tactics “entirely unreasonable”, it’s probably time for a change of tack. Poll after poll has shown the public to be firmly on the side of junior doctors, even following their ballot for an all-out strike.
One point that’s been made repeatedly throughout the crisis has been that focusing only on junior doctors is missing the point when it comes to increased mortality. It is instead the availability of senior consultants that has a bigger role to play in improving outcomes for patients admitted at weekends.
Instead of opening up a new front in the war of words, the new DH comms chief may want to pause for thought. The Rottweiler tactics haven’t worked – perhaps a more conciliatory tone is worth a try.