A new legal penalty due to be introduced later this year could represent a real risk to the reputation of the NHS. Agatha Chapman-Poole explains what to do if your trust is served a publicity order

Imagine having to write to the national newspapers to inform them that your trust has just been convicted of corporate manslaughter. Not only that, but you then have to hand over all the details of the case to journalists for publication in the next morning's papers. This is what could happen if you are faced with a publicity order.

Publicity orders are a part of the Corporate Manslaughter Act due to come into force later this year, once the sentencing advisory panel reports on its recent consultation. They are an untested penalty that will revolutionise the way the NHS conducts itself in the public eye.

The orders will be imposed by the crown courts, in principle to bring the failings of the offending organisation to the attention of the public. The sentencing advisory panel has already recommended that courts should impose a publicity order on every organisation convicted of corporate manslaughter.

A range of publicity options have been suggested, including placing an advertisement in newspapers, trade journals, television and radio.

Bad timing

Arriving, as they have, at a point when the NHS is attempting to convert many of its trusts into foundation trusts, the timing of the new law could not be worse. Foundation trust status means patient choice. Patients are unlikely to choose treatment in an institution that has just received negative publicity.

If a publicity order is served on a trust, a crisis communication strategy is essential. Ensure you have a press office team in place to answer enquiries and that you prepare the best response possible.

Preparation

Before any situation has the chance to arise, you should be preparing the ground by building good relations with the media. You can do this by:

  • setting up a media enquiries tab on your website with the details of a 24/7 media relations contact, including a phone number and email address;

  • making sure you have a trained media spokesperson, preferably more than one, to offer interviews to the press;

  • keeping a store of positive testimonials from patients, which can be sourced by placing testimonial sheets in waiting rooms for people to fill out;

  • ensuring reception and switchboard staff, at the very least, know who works in your media department or handles enquiries from the press;

  • using your press office to build good relations with the health correspondent on your main regional paper;

  • formulating a comprehensive list of national and regional media contacts so your press office can send information out accurately and quickly to the correct journalists.

Crisis management

If the worst should happen and a negative news story on your trust is identified by the media:

  • never say "no comment";

  • prepare a press statement to ensure a fair portrayal and a balanced voice in any report;

  • bear in mind when constructing your statement that the media are legally obliged to include your side of the story in their article;

  • a supporting website can be useful for crisis communications in case your regular website becomes overloaded with enquiries and crashes;

  • finally, make sure not to forget direct communications with the public. The press office can brief all patient-facing staff and approve script copy if you have a call centre, should anyone call to ask about the news story.