Published: 05/02/2004, Volume II4, No. 5891 Page 27

While SARS and vCJD receive more than their fair share of media attention, a little PR savvy can spread the wider message, says Sin Griffiths

Why doesn't public health get better media coverage? A King's Fund report in October 2003 showed there were fewer than 0.33 deaths for every story about vCJD or measles, but it took over 7,500 deaths to merit coverage for mass killers like tobacco or obesity.

This reflected my own experience. I was involved with two reports: one on SARS in Hong Kong, the other on fuel poverty.

The first received massive coverage, out of all proportion to risk, while the other got virtually none.

Whose fault was it? At a King's Fund seminar on the issue, there was a strong feeling that the media should be more responsible in its portrayal of risks. Director of BBC news Richard Sambrook explained that the BBC is introducing guidance to make its journalists more aware of reporting risks appropriately.

Then an extraordinary thing happened. Ron Finley, chairman of public relations consultancy Fishburn Hedges, stood up to offer help free of charge, claiming that his consultancy could get media coverage on the issue of fuel poverty. He argued that it is not the media's job to act as ambassadors for the public health lobby - but with a bit of nous, he said, public health professionals could do much better at attracting attention.

This was an offer not to be missed. Fuel poverty contributes to thousands of excess deaths in the UK each year. So we met and hatched a plan, combining professional knowledge with PR savvy.

The main ingredients were: a 'killer' fact (2,500 people would die in a cold snap in December because of fuel poverty); authority (the figures came from the Met Office);

and timing (we chose Christmas Eve, a quiet news day and a suitable time to reflect on others' wellbeing). I made myself available for interviews and we had regional, as well as national, statistics. We all worked on the press release, seeking advice from local directors of public health and their teams.

In the event, we brought the story forward by a day to catch the cold snap over the weekend before Christmas; and the final factor was unforseen: our story was reinforced by the tragedy of two old people dying at home, with their gas cut off.

Suddenly hypothermia and the possibility of preventing thousands of deaths was a news story. From 6.20am, when I sat on the sofa on BBC's Breakfast, through to the early evening, we led the news agenda on all major TV and radio channels, with huge coverage in national and regional press.

We did 46 broadcast interviews during the day, and the BBC carried an interview with health secretary John Reid acknowledging the problem and defending government action.

We achieved around 350 national, online and regional media pieces, and for a day or two became one of the biggest topics of discussion in homes around the country.

The lessons? Public health people should heed the advice of PR and media colleagues. We need to be more strategic in turning our stories into news - and to recognise what is wanted by the media, not just what we think they need.

Professor Sián Griffiths is president of the Faculty of Public Health