Public relations student Peter Finnegan contacted Tony Ellis, head of communications at Southport & Ormskirk Hospital NHS Trust, for this Behind the Spin interview. Tony manages a team of two and reports to the Trust’s deputy director of strategy, commerce and communications.
How did you get the job working for the NHS?
I was a journalist for 21 years in regional newspapers. My final posting was as assistant editor on the Liverpool Daily Post.
Having decided to change careers, I became the first communications manager with ChaMPs, the public health network for Cheshire and Merseyside.
It is funded by the area’s eight directors of public health and was a great platform to see how the service operated.
After five years there, I was appointed marketing and communications manager at Southport and Ormskirk Hospital NHS Trust.
How does this job differ from previous jobs that you have had?
PR is obviously very different from journalism – I am very much poacher turned gamekeeper. Having said that, many of the skills used by media people are used in PR but differently. Running a newspaper campaign, for example, involves building relationships to gain support much in the same way that good PRs build relationships to underpin the reputation of their organisation.
There is though a great difference between my current job and ChaMPs. The emphasis there was on building the network’s reputation with stakeholders with relatively little media work.
My Southport role is all-encompassing requiring corporate PR, media relations, internal communications, crisis communications, copy writing, designing, publishing and much more.
Do you believe that the public’s perception of the NHS gives you a problem when communicating with the public?
This works both ways. People’s own rating of the local NHS services they have used is generally very high. The perception of the NHS as a national organisation, while still good, is not as high. That means communications needs to emphasise the local experience – particularly if a national issue causes local concerns. For example, infection control has always been a high priority at Southport and Ormskirk – we never had an MRSA problem in the way some Trusts did. However, patients still came here concerned about the issue even though our infection rates were low compared to others.
What are the limitations of working in the public sector?
I don’t think PR in the public sector is a safe choice. Communicators working for public bodies face many more constraints than those working for a commercial operation. In the NHS, for example, we have to be aware of patient confidentiality, freedom of information, the national and local politics of health, etc.
Arguably, public sector PRs are obliged to be more ethical because of the context in which they are working. Commercial practitioners face fewer such constraints.
Perhaps it is (or has been pre-recession) the safer choice in terms of terms and conditions of employment.
The plain fact is that PR is not a one-size-fits-all business. It’s as varied as the almost unlimited variety of organisations it serves. Each has its limitations. You simply chose which ones you wish to accept.
What is the most challenging situation that you have had to deal with working in the public sector as a PR practitioner?
Working with partners to agree the reconfiguration of community services in North Sefton and Central Lancashire has been particularly challenging. Three organisations, three workforces plus the local and national politics of health is making this a very interesting programme of work.
In public health, the challenge was always presenting the benefits of a particular intervention without coming across as hectoring or ‘nanny stateist’.
What are the benefits of working in the NHS?
Everyone has an opinion on the NHS, so you’re never short of conversation in the pub or at parties.
People are always too willing to believe the worst about the service even though their personal experience of it is probably very good. I enjoy exploding the myths and misconceptions about health where I can.
Communicators in the NHS are certainly paid much better than journalists on regional newspapers – and possibly better than in some commercial PR operations too. The pension is good too (for now!).