Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Public relations - in the NHS

Stress seemed like a good topic for the day - but in thinking about it, I thought I should precede it with one about public relations to give a little insight.

As everyone probably doesn't know, the average PR person is not that well paid. When I first went into PR from journalism, the salaries were better than I was getting as a journalist, but Max Clifford super-earners we were not.

Invariably people graft away in relatively lowly jobs either in the public sector - local government, civil service, health service - or in the private sector, where the salaries can be good, and, they can also be even worse than the public sector.

As everyone probably also doesn't know, every one in the world without the slightest relevant qualification, thinks they are a PR expert - to the extent of even applying for PR jobs. When I advertised for PR managers, specifically requiring journalism and/or PR skills and experience, I got every person under the sun applying. 'I like talking to people, so I can do this job,' sort of application.

And every non-PR manager KNOWS, just KNOWS, that they are far more of an expert about PR than someone specifically appointed to the job. They may have even listened to a lecture for an hour about it. Who knows? Just gotta love the civil servant telling me how to write and where to place the commas. What my intro should be. What boring verbose language to use. Hell! Why not write the press release yourself? Actually some of them did 'helpfully' send down drafts. They were crap.

And the medic, the nurse, the manager, everyone, but everyone, telling me what to do and what we need. And would they actually pull their tiny little finger out to do anything themselves? Only if and when it meant personal glory for them at my expense. So the realities of life in PR, are not a social whirl of booze and buffets. About the only decent one I ever managed was a launch in Scotland where we had chablis and smoked salmon. But otherwise food and drink was pretty mediocre on that wonderful circuit of networking, chatting, and no hard work. The civil service was slightly better than the health service. At least we had a budget for smoked salmon and chablis. Once.

PR involves being on-call at weekends and nights during the week. In some cases, there are formal rotas - invariably when you have a nice large department and you take it in turns to be on-call. This does mean that you get an on-call allowance, ie extra cash. In very olden days you had to stay in all over the weekend - because there were no office mobile 'phones. (When the mobile 'phone did arrive your arm nearly dropped off lugging it across London to go home). The only time you could escape was to go and buy every single newspaper on Saturday and Sunday mornings and then spend the rest of the morning ploughing through them looking for relevant cuttings. Even Sunday Sport!!

When the 'phone rang, you answered it. Didn't matter what time it was, you answered it. Our 'phone was downstairs which was just as well, as I had sort of woken up when it rang after midnight and I had finally staggered down the uncarpeted stairs, carefully avoiding the ladders that were permanently stored on our staircase. It was usually a nuclear query of course. Gah! Which nuclear expert to wake up at some unearthly hour to ask about nuclear probs? And try and absorb the answer. An escaped canister somewhere? An unacceptable leak of radiation? Exactly what you wanted to deal with when you were half asleep. Still, choose job, get paid, do job.

But when you have attained the lofty rank of a senior manager - there is no on-call allowance. Your salary is deemed to be sufficient and this is when you start to be owned by the company, whether it is public sector or not. Especially when it is the health service. Then you have to find one of your colleagues who specialises in the subject to speak to the press (unlike the civil service where normally you are the spokesperson). Invariably your colleagues don't want to speak to the press. They don't consider they are paid to do so, they may have the knowledge, and you don't, but it is your job to speak to the press even when you have no idea of the topic being asked about. They sure as hell aren't going to tell you something they know about in order to make you look good.

At the time we had a boss who considered that PR was everyone's business. Sadly all his staff did not. My colleagues considered weekends and holidays to be off-limits. I received a call one New Year's Day, and rang the relevant manager. 'I don't want to speak to the press on New Year's Day, can't you deal with it?' Er no. My New Year's Day has also been interrupted thank you very much. I was gardening at the time, it was beautiful weather. Really, how do people think I can possibly speak to the press without being told about the issues? I wasn't telepathic. Nor am I now.

When we held our big public consultation, I usually arrived in the office around 8am. If I was lucky I went to a public meeting in the evening and finished sometime after 9pm, or 10pm or whenever. If I was unlucky, I stayed at work until after midnight working on the fifty millionth version of the crap draft document, accompanied by my superb admin assistant who would rapidly make all the amendments and endlessly keep printing it out. I would take her home, and then drop off the latest versions of our draft documents to all our board members through their letterboxes. I should say there was no extra cash for either of us for this dedicated duty. We had a job. At a time of cutbacks it was enough.

We had board meetings virtually every week. One day, one of the intelligent non-executive board members had a bright idea. 'Why don't we get a journalist to write this document for us?' Bang head on table? One of the exec directors who knew my CV helpfully pointed out that we did have a journalist around that very table. NED looked at me from under his microscope (he was a medic of sorts) wondering what sort of species I was. If I was a journalist, why was I working for the health authority? I couldn't possibly be a proper journalist could I? Because if I was, I would be working for a newspaper.

And how many battles had I already had with the arrogant self-opinionated managers who considered that they could write a public consultation document far better than me? Public sector life? Easy? Money for old rope? No. In the end, I committed to re-writing the - so far - crap document over a few days and getting rid of all the ghastly managerial speak. I demanded input from a couple of knowledgeable people, but given that, I could do it. We did do it of course.

Me, and a couple of directors spent a couple of days locked away, even including getting a couple of pizzas in the office to keep us going. (We paid for them before anyone starts to worry about a couple of pizzas coming out of the public purse). We left the office only to go to the toilet. We went home when it was finished. Or rather they went, I finished the document off - and yes, delivered the latest version to the picky board members into their letterboxes. After midnight. As usual. Was it a good document? Yeah, I reckon it was. Within the constraints of what people wanted to include, but at least it was readable and didn't come on like an MBA thesis.

And - therein lies another PR lesson. Always, but always say how good your work is. Doesn't matter if it is rubbish because, that is what everyone else does. Gotta promote yourself. Tell everyone you are fantastic. Completed an insignificant piece of work - gosh! I did great stuff didn't I? You don't need to be good. Just say you are. To the right people.

Now, onto the next PR lesson. When people tell you they want a PR strategy and lots of really good communications, that means they are telling you how to do your job. In fact they want nothing more than to tell you how to do it, without doing anything else. Will they provide contacts, information, write anything, provide interviews, move their arses to help? Quite honestly - will they fuck.
Newsletters? Don't even go there. The nightmare of every PR manager.

What your super colleagues will do, is endlessly moan and wail about the need for great PR - and tell you to do something. Like PR is one person's business? Because no, it definitely is not. I got sick of it in the end. Ha! I told my dear colleagues exactly what was needed from them to run a decent PR strategy. Everyone lost interest. See, it's easy to say 'What we need are good communications, a newsletter, a PR strategy...' and all the rest of it. Anyone can say that. Hardly takes Brain of the Year. It griped me to hell that my health service colleagues on more money had crap PR skills, expected me to deal with the press for them on their behalf - without giving me the relevant info - and I was treated like some mediocre person, without a skill, who could just chat to the press and write a few press releases, but who didn't understand proper health service stuff. So that my dears, is why I left PR. And learned about cancer services.

No comments: