Published: 07/04/2005, Volume II5, No. 5949 Page 34

Media coverage of trusts is not all tabloid horror stories. For those attuned to the nuances of press relations, it can be an advantage. NHS management trainee Anthony Martin explains

Can good communications change media and public perception? Does a proactive approach to media relations positively influence the press coverage of a trust?

Public perception of the NHS is chiefly shaped through experience and the media. How much so was charted in a survey of communication heads at three trusts and a private provider, communication strategic planners and members of the public.

Responses showed that personal experience remains the main factor in forming people's opinions. This makes internal communications key. Good communication skills should therefore be encouraged at all stages of the patient journey. The survey also showed that recent experience of the NHS has been much better than the media suggests.

The study asked people to consider the differences between national and local media coverage of the NHS. A marginally higher percentage felt the national media was a greater influence on them. Despite their recognition that the media influences them, the respondents revealed distrust of its health coverage, especially the national media. This tension was reflected in other responses, in which both the public and communication heads suggested that the media does not accurately represent public views or opinions.

Analysis of media coverage of health stories found that national press coverage in the sample period was assessed 55 per cent negative, 20 per cent positive and 25 per cent ambiguous. Conversely, local coverage was 62 per cent positive, 28 per cent negative and 10 per cent ambiguous.

Local media are important to a trust, as their patients and staff will tend to read and be influenced by them. Most communications heads surveyed believed they enjoyed constructive relationships with their local media, and that coverage of NHS issues was linked to staff morale.

Looking at the number of press releases and their media uptake, there was no direct link proving that the amount of press releases issued will guarantee high overall levels of positive coverage. However, this research did show that, where press releases are issued and something is published as a result of the release, there is a very high level of positive coverage.

Of 111 press releases issued by the three NHS trusts during the periods studied, 91 were printed. Of those, 87 per cent were published as 'positive'.

The success of an organisation's media relations cannot be judged on the number of press releases issued. But where press releases are issued, there is evidence of a high rate of positive coverage. So they can be useful as a means of seeking one-off positive news stories and as part of a broader strategy of building the organisation's reputation.

This study recommends that trusts increase their use of press releases and that they are pursued as much as possible. However, the study observed that trusts were not able to issue positive news stories proactively to the level they wished, due to the need to deal with reactive media management.

Next steps

Drive towards proactive, positive press coverage to attract 'business', advance corporate image, boost community pride and clarify direction.

Define function and prioritise objectives. Establish communications as a priority and base team near executives.

Emphasise the principle that 'everything is communication'. Plan 'customer care' workshops for staff.

Develop and advertise the organisation's image with foundation trust members or the local community through public involvement meetings.

Put emphasis on internal communication. Combine electronic methods with auditable personal systems of passing information.

Regularly audit internal and external communications methods.

Educate the local media. Build relationships, help journalists to learn, and pursue two-way flow of data.

Encourage sharing of 'good news' stories. Communications team should produce guidelines for heads of department to promote and aid sharing.

Separate communications functions into internal and external. Each function should have its own staff.

Where difficult decisions must be taken, use established constructive media relations to educate and explain.

Plan communications strategically.

Plot objectives, plan changes and make time to audit them. Identify resource implications and prioritise accordingly.

Share learning with regard to external communications.

Consider the use of 'advertising'.