conference focus

Published: 30/05/2002, Volume II2, No. 5807 Page 12

The NHS is still learning 'painful lessons' about how to deal with negative press coverage, chief executive of United Bristol Healthcare trust Hugh Ross told the conference.

As part of a standing-room-only session chaired by former HSJ editor Peter Davies, Mr Ross gave a point-by-point account of the media-relations strategy that the trust had developed in the face of furious press scrutiny over the Bristol baby deaths tragedy.

However, he warned that too many NHS organisations still 'deny the past' when faced with critical media attention. 'You have to be honest and open, ' said Mr Ross.

He set out how the trust had attempted to win over the local press and population.

As well as honesty and openness, the Bristol chief executive also suggested 'clinical champions' be given a high profile in any media campaign. Humility in dealing with critics was essential. 'Concede almost everything. If you try to stand on your dignity, you will fall.'

He continued: 'Use media interest, do every interview, never say 'no comment' - and remember that local people want good news.'

Earlier, former MP David Lock took a rather less respectful view of the media. But in the session - which examined the lessons from the Kidderminster reconfiguration - he could not deny the importance of local press. 'They are stupid, ignorant, a pain in the neck - but they're crucial, ' he said.

Mr Lock gave a strong presentation about the forces which saw him deposed and replaced by single-issue candidate Dr Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest. It wasn't just the media that came under attack.

Mr Lock said his own efforts and those of the health community to sell the message had failed.

Pat Corles, former chief executive of Worcestershire heath authority and now acting chief executive of the NHS Pensions Agency, insisted the HA could be accused of neither poor communication nor secrecy.

Instead, 'we were victims of open government', she said.