Published: 19/08/2004, Volume II4, No. 5919 Page 12 13

Been exposed as a 'dirty'hospital? Had one too many patients come down with Legionnaire's? Coping with an outbreak of MRSA? Foundation status looming? Or, horror of horrors, You have just discovered a royal on one of your wards? Then get yourself on to a media training course, says Jennifer Trueland

Standing in front of a camera talking to nobody but a 'stuffed hamster on a stick' must rate as one of Alan Dorn's most bizarre experiences so far this year.

The emergency planning officer for Greater Glasgow board had been through media training - but it had not fully prepared him for this. 'I was doing an interview for Sky but the person asking questions was back in the studio. So I had a piece of plastic in my ear and was standing in front of the camera looking at this great hairy haggis [the microphone]. I now know why people you see on television look like startled rabbits.'

Mr Dorn, who took part in media training four years ago, thoroughly recommends it.

'Before that I hadn't had much experience of the media. But in emergency planning we try to keep the media on side because you never know when they might be helpful rather than a hindrance.'

He is not alone. Media training has become part of the to-do list of most senior NHS managers, particularly at board level. It ranges from the most basic - a chat with the in-house communications manager - to all-singing all-dancing training in front of a video camera where participants are put through their paces by trainers who are usually practising or former journalists.

Bringing in the trainers can be an expensive business. A bill upwards of£2,000 per day is not uncommon and for that you can probably expect to get between four and six people trained.

Circumstances have conspired, however, to make it a near necessity for NHS bodies facing the demands of being more open and accountable. The proliferation of media outlets, thanks, in part, to non-terrestrial television and rolling news channels, has heightened the need.

'My judgment is that people are persuaded of the need for media training, ' says Henrietta Joy, assistant director of communications with North East London strategic health authority.

'Most board members of any standing will have had some form of it so that they feel more confident when talking to the media, not just in a one-to-one interview but in a press conference situation.'

She thinks the growing acceptance is part of an increasing awareness that communication issues can no longer be left to chance. 'Generally it would be fair to say that communication hasn't been prioritised in the NHS, ' she says carefully. 'But I think That is changing.'

Jenifer Stirton, acting director of communications at NHS Lothian, agrees. Board members and senior managers are presently undergoing a thorough training, including a taped interview with a well-known Scottish broadcaster.

'It is a very real exercise, ' says Ms Stirton. 'But It is not just about preparing people to deal with the media. I think it makes people more aware of how they communicate with each other and also gives them more of an idea of what We are doing in the communications department.' That is a two-way street, she confesses.

'Having been media trained myself I now appreciate why managers I put up for interview get sweaty palms!'

If managers have been media trained, will journalists notice the difference? Barry Nelson, health correspondent of the Northern Echo, has no doubt that many senior managers in his region have been through media training.

But that doesn't mean he benefits from their increased expertise.

'I am finding generally that chief executives do not come forward to speak for themselves and that We are dealing more and more with PRs. It is difficult to get access to people - which is not great for journalists. I mean this in the nicest possible way but we'd rather talk to the organ grinder than the monkey.'

He believes that a growing number of former journalists making the move into NHS PR is sharpening up the act of health organisations. One such person is Ally McLaws, former newspaper journalist, now director of communication at NHS Glasgow.

A pretty hard-nosed hack in his newspaper days, Mr McLaws is now helping NHS managers to avoid the scrutiny of the press by becoming slicker at dealing with the media: 'We do not expect that everything will be broadcast in a positive light, ' he says. 'We are not trying to mould or use the media.

We just want to get our message across effectively.'

The right sort of training is important, however - and that doesn't mean turning out a bunch of corporate clones who will parrot the trust line. So is there a danger in being 'over' media-trained?

Former BBC health correspondent Pennie Taylor can spot the worst offenders. The moment that an interviewee says, 'That is a good question, ' she knows what's happened: 'I think, oh God, here we go again, someone else who's been media trained, ' she laughs.

Although a great advocate for what she calls media awareness - knowing how it works and what journalists expect - she has little time for what we have come to understand as media training.

'I sometimes think media trainers just want to freak people out so they'll bring you back again, ' she says.

'Working with the media is about confidence, knowing what you're talking about, being prepared to answer questions off the cuff and having some passion. It is also good to know how the media works - especially journalists' deadlines.'

Ms Taylor, who now works as a freelance journalist and communications consultant, says there are advantages in interviewing people who have a little know-how.

'It is always handy if people know to repeat the question in the answer and to answer in such a way that it can be used in a clip, but That is more about knowing how the media works, rather than training.'

But that is all part of media training, according to Atlas Media Group, a leading supplier of PR, communications and design services to the NHS. Head of media training Mark Brearly, who has worked in print and broadcast media, says it is vital for the NHS to be more open and accountable.

'It is not about spin or managing the news. It is about helping the NHS to have spokespeople who are upfront, honest and visible when something has happened, whether the news is good or bad.

As a former journalist, I defend the profession to NHS staff and remind them of the benefits and opportunities the media offers.'

The process can also have its lighter side, he says. 'I remember one person tried to stay silent through the whole interview. I was really confused and, after several attempts at asking them the same question, they eventually revealed the reason for their reticence - I would earlier warned the group not to feel pressured into filling silences.'

One of his clients, Rose Stephens, director of hospital services and chief nurse at Bradford Teaching Hospitals foundation trust, is convinced the experience was worthwhile. 'We wanted the training to help us work better with the media, so that we can speak openly and honestly about the work our hospitals do.

In the build-up to us becoming a foundation trust we thought it was especially important we should all have confidence to deal with the media and put across clearly what the changes are all about.'

Since Alan Dorn was media trained, he has given countless press, television and radio interviews at major emergencies , including the fatal plastics factory explosion in Glasgow's Maryhill earlier this year.

He has no doubt that the training was useful on a number of levels.

'It is good to know how things work and what deadlines mean. And It is good to realise that journalists are human and get nervous too.'

Being an ex-RAF man, he says he was already quite confident about speaking in public. But he adds that seeing himself on television for the first time was a bit of a shock.

'You think, God, you're an ugly old sod, ' he laughs. 'It is like the first time you hear your voice on a tape recorder. It is not what you expect.'

How not to do it

Sometimes media training can backfire.One doctor - an experienced operator in front of the microphone or camera - lost his confidence for a while after a particularly unhelpful bout of training from an independent company.'I would already had inhouse media training from the British Medical Association, which was excellent, but this was someone who I can only describe as an ego on legs.The whole experience was a waste of time and made me feel selfconscious. It took a while to get back on track.'

Of course, no man is a hero in his own backyard.One senior manager in the west of Scotland recalls how media trainers, who had come up from London, reduced the room to gales of laughter when they showed a video clip of what not to do.

'The guy was doing all the wrong things, mumbling and falling out with the journalist.

It was [chancellor] Gordon Brown.Thing was, most of the people in the room knew his brother, John, who is one of the best-known PR men in Scotland.He obviously hadn't passed on any tips.'