Today I was invited to speak at a conference for NHS PR people. The brief was to talk about what it is like to deal with the NHS from a journalist’s perspective. Here’s a summary of what I said:
Thank you very much for inviting me to speak. In the spirit of NHS cost-saving, I did offer to appear in return for a packet of Tunnock’s teacakes, but I’m told that NHS England (London)’s budget didn’t even extend to that.
FIRST SLIDE: here’s one I made earlier (not today, you’ll be relieved to hear.) it’s a story that could now be written on any day of the year.
In next 10 minutes, I’ll give you:
* a recent example of what happens when I asked several trusts for help.
* An indication of who and what gets written about in the Evening Standard.
* And I’ll try to convince you that our unusal deadlines are an opportunity rather than a problem.
Before I start, and to make sure I make it out of the door alive, I’d like to take you to the approach of a former Evening Standard deputy editor. After he called you into his office for what was known by reporters as a “fireside chat” – namely, a telling off – he’d preface his remarks by saying: “Now, we’re all working very hard.”
So, in recognition that “we’re all working very hard” and that I’m sure that keeping the Evening Standard happy is not often your top priority, I’ll tell you about an unusual thing that happened last week.
I got a usable press release from the Department of Health.
Now, before Georgie chases me all the way back to Walthamstow, I should just say that many of its releases are newsworthy – but unfortunately unusable because they’re timed to suit the nationals rather than our deadlines. I’ll talk more about our deadlines and the problem – or opportunity – they present later.
The press release was about the latest round of funding for clinical research. Eight London trusts were to share £40 million. It was embargoed until 9am on Friday.
What it didn’t contain was any detail of the exciting new projects the money would fund, so just before 11am last Thursday morning I decided to get in touch with the four trusts receiving the larger grants. I called and then emailed through a summary of the release.
This is what happened.
by 1136, Moorfields said: “I’m in touch with our director of research – happy to see if we can arrange a phone call for you. Let me know if you need anything else.” The phone interview happened at 1.45pm and gave me several great examples.
By 1pm, Guy’s and St Thomas’s called back to mention the boost the cash would give to its work preventing the rejection of transplanted organs. A press release including a patient case study arrived at 2.15pm.
At 220pm I filed the story.
At 330pm I got on my bike and cycled home. I should say that I start at 730am, in case you think I was sloping off early.
At 4pm, Imperial emailed to mention its research on vaccines for ebola, malaria and HIV, a study that tested the use of magic mushrooms on people suffering from depression, and various IVF studies. The press officer added a link: http://imperial.crf.nihr.ac.uk/
At 6.12pm UCLH responded: “I’m sorry this took so long but we’ve been hard pressed with the ministerial visit this morning and all the people who could actually answer the question were on the visit.”
At 632pm, unprompted, GOSH sent me a release: “Great Ormond Street Hospital wins £3 million extra funding for its Somers Clinical Research Facility centre.”
This is what the story looked like on Friday morning:
It’s for you to judge which teams got it right and which, if any, got it wrong last Thursday. From my perspective, I guess it’s fair to say I was a bit disappointed with Imperial and UCLH. Being sent a web link of previous work is a bit insulting. I know how to use Google. As for UCLH, I’ve been well-disposed to it for some time, particularly so as my daughter was born there. My frustration increased further on Friday evening when I watched the BBC London coverage of the story, which had been filmed at UCLH!
UPDATE November 29: UCLH has since told me that it was asked/required by the Department of Health to organise the ministerial visit and had no involvement in who was invited (the Standard wasn’t invited by the Department of Health, or even alerted to the visit taking place). It said that because of this, it felt unable to discuss the fact the visit was taking place.
I guess you can’t win them all, but it did go to show how certain trusts appear more willing to help themselves to secure coverage than others. I felt like I’d given each of the trusts an open goal in terms of positive publicity, but only two bothered to shoot in time.
Now, what does the Standard cover in terms of health?
To give an example of who or what I’ve written about over the last 12 months, I checked our electronic database and found the following mentions:
In terms of NHS trusts:
St George’s 34
London Ambulance Service 29
Guy’s and St Thomas’s 24
In terms of diseases/areas of healthcare:
Air ambulance 19
In terms of other people or organisations:
Junior doctors 44
Jeremy Hunt 42
Public Health England 21
Yvonne Doyle 7
Anne Rainsberry 2
Over the 12-month period, I wrote:
169 stories that mentioned NHS
29 that mentioned NHS England
24 that mentioned Department of Health.
There are no “no-go areas” in terms of our health coverage, but certain subjects are normally likely to get more space. We have a younger readership than the Mail, Telegraph and Express. As such, and it’s not an absolute rule, but there tends to be less interest in stories about dementia, Alzheimer’s and statins, for example.
A quick word about the Evening Standard and its difficult – or advantageous deadlines.
We have two editions a day – 11am and 1230pm. The first edition’s on the streets around 2pm, the second from about 4pm.
We print 930,000 copies a day, and about 600,000 people a day visit our website, giving us more than two million readers a day.
More people read the paper version of the Standard each day than the number who read the Telegraph and Times combined. Only the Sun, Mail and Metro have bigger paper circulations, and those are nationwide.
Our online audience has grown by almost 50 per cent year on year. However, not everything that appears in the paper ends up online, or vice versa.
To finish, here are a few examples of recent positive stories about the NHS.
There will always be bad news, whether it’s from inquests or NHS statistics or from me simply reading board papers. You can’t stop stories like this appearing:
Bad stories will still get in the paper but there’s a massive opportunity to get good ones in too.
How to contact me: