Letting a TV crew into your organisation is a scary prospect for any communicator. Even more so if you work in the NHS – an ever present in the media spotlight.
by Hannah Clubb
Managing communications in an NHS mental health Trust means you spend a lot of time balancing risk.
Whilst mental health is moving up the news agenda you’re still much more likely to see cameras in an A&E unit than in a mental health hospital.
It’s a much maligned state of affairs, but as NHS communicators and managers, how much are we to blame?
Our staff at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust manage risk daily; hourly. There are no scans, x-rays or tests to tell you if someone has a mental health problem or to predict what effect that problem might have on their behaviour and decision making.
Recently our Trust was in the spotlight for a review into nine homicides committed by our patients over the past ten years and one homicide of a patient in our care.
Our media strategy was open and transparent. We spoke to the media proactively. Not because we wanted our name out there but because it was the right thing to do for the families and friends of those people who died. The review identified improvements needed to make care better. For that to happen there needs to be an open, honest discussion about where things go wrong, the barriers to improvements and what needs to be changed.
The coverage was rightly widespread and rightly held the Trust to account. Some criticised our approach. They felt we were feeding the negative image of mental health. We weren’t. We were showing the public that our Trust was accepting that changes were needed, notto improve reputation but to improve patient care.
So how does that link to inviting BBC cameras into a medium secure mental health unit, a facility that looks after patients with mental health conditions who have also come into contact with the criminal justice system?
We criticise the media for not talking about mental health, we criticise them for only reporting it when things go wrong, for covering failings in care, suicide or crimes committed by someone with a mental health problem.
But as NHS organisations we are surprisingly absent from the public debate. We have a duty to the people who use our services to be present in that debate and help shape it in an informative measured way. Both in response to negative coverage, such as our review, and highlighting best practice which is what we were doing with our piece about our medium secure hospital.
As communications professionals we know the media need three things, a news hook, access and real people. When we invited the BBC to the Hellingly Centre we offered them access to a centre where you can’t normally take in a mobile phone let alone a camera. We allowed them to speak to patients, but the patients they spoke to could not be identified in any way and the clinical team could only let me know who was clinically well enough to take part 10 minutes before they went on camera. Practically speaking the invite to the BBC followed years of building good local relationships, of opening our doors not just when things were good but also in times of criticism. We are slowly earning a reputation of an organisation that will answer questions and does say sorry when care hasn’t been good enough. The actual visit came about from a tweet from the BBC South East Today health editor about a project involving a punk band visiting the centre. He said it sounded interesting so we asked if he wanted to see more. From pitch to reality it took three weeks. There were many emails of reassurance, not least to get agreement to allow BBC Sussex’s social media editor to bring a mobile phone, a contraband item, into the unit to film on. The reason it worked so quickly was internal relationships. In a conversation with the director of the service I told her some staff were worried the coverage could turn against us; ‘that’s your job’ she told me, ‘if you feel we’ve managed the risk as best we can, that’s good enough for me.’
There were huge risks to the piece, it could have been an excuse for local journalists to run a sensational piece about mental health related crime. So why do it? Because you can’t criticise the media for not talking about something that society doesn’t talk about. The media is a reflection of the reluctance of mental health organisations to put their head above the parapet. I’ve very rarely had a patient tell me they’re not willing to take part in media activity but I’ve had a lot of staff tell me it’s not possible or too risky. The Hellingly coverage would not have happened in some mental health trusts because of the what ifs. And I can’t blame anyone working in frontline mental health for their attitude to the media. From their point of view they’ve got a hard job to do made harder by prejudice and stigma.
But that’s why our job as communications professionals is to support them by doing our bit to tackle it. The staff I worked with at Hellingly manage real risk daily. And not risk about reputation of an organisation or a bad news story but risks that affect real lives. We chose to work with the BBC on the Hellingly story for three reasons, to tackle stigma of mental health, the view that mental health is a taboo subject that is the concern of other people, to demystify The Hellingly Centre, a hospital literally in the middle of a housing estate which locally is at best not understood and at worse feared, and three to highlight staff in a service who in the Cinderella service of the NHS; mental health, are the most cinders of all. It was profoundly not about raising the profile of the reputation, the coverage will have done little of that, what it was about was promoting confidence and promoting understanding.
And you know what? It was worth the sleepless nights.
Hannah Clubb is Deputy Director of Communications at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust
image via Paul Townsend