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BLOG: After Croydon University Hospital's latest PR blunder, it's time to tell a different story

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A TRIBUNAL'S verdict that health chiefs sacked a doctor who raised concerns following the death of a patient marks another low in what has been a desperate few months for Croydon University Hospital.

The trust, which is appealing the judgment, has barely been out of the headlines since August, when it emerged that an elderly patient had died after being given a drug she had a documented allergy to.

In September, health commissioners raised serious concern over cancer waiting times, with one in three patients waiting at least three months for treatment after seeing a GP, and how long it was taking ambulances to respond to life-threatening calls.

A month later a senior member of staff leaked evidence to the Advertiser exposing a series of food related incidents, including the death of a patient fed solid instead of liquid food by staff.

Later that month more than 100 people protested outside the hospital angered by its refusal to treat 22-year-old Marcus Campbell, a demonstration exacerbated by a visiting ban imposed on the critically ill father-of-two's family following an altercation which occurred when they were told he would not be resuscitated if his heart stopped.

November brought little respite, with the London Road hospital making national news when Thornton Heath mum Leanne Bilon called on Croydon Health Services to admit mistakes which caused her to lose four babies in less than two years.

A fortnight later Sumeya Mirchie demanded similar answers when her unborn baby died three days after doctors said her ectopic pregnancy was a cyst.

Then, on Wednesday, the hospital's A&E department was labelled one of the worst in the country by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

At some point in the last few weeks the hospital's PR team appears to have come together to discuss what could be done to stem the relentless tide of bad news.

The result was a double page advert, taken out in this week's Croydon Guardian, telling readers how improvements to care are changing perceptions about the hospital. 

Unfortunately it appeared in an edition which had the tribunal's findings as its front page story.

While the juxtaposition was out of the hospital's control it was the wording of the advert which was far more difficult to explain.

A column under the headline "Changing perceptions" begins: "For years the hospital formally [sic] known as 'Maydie' has been trying to shake off its past poor reputation."

For some inexplicable reason, the hospital has paid to put their notorious nickname into a newspaper. That's the same toxic moniker Mayday attempted to escape by spending thousands of pounds on a name change.

The Advertiser has asked the hospital whose idea this was and who signed it off. Whoever came up with it presumably took inspiration from the self-deprecating advertising techniques of Skoda, forgetting the hospital deals in people's lives not cr*ppy Czech cars.

Maydie. May Die. You may die if you go to Croydon University Hospital. Why would you start a passage about changing your reputation by reminding people of a slogan like that?

The staff must despair. The advert lists valid examples of how things are getting better, such as falling mortality rates and increased nurse and senior doctor numbers, only for the message to be undermined by the latest example of the hospital's car crash PR.

Take its handling of the Marcus Campbell campaign. The hospital took what was essentially a tragic story in which its staff had taken an extremely difficult decision, ultimately found to be in their patient's best interests, and managed to blow it out of all proportion through poor communication with his family and the press.

The frustration this created led family and friends to stage an emotional protest outside the hospital on October 22, during which the trust refused to send chief executive John Goulston, or another senior member of staff, to speak with his mother Sandra and sister Siobhan.

When someone eventually met with them they did so in the entrance to the hospital, in full view of the crowd, who became incensed when, having been refused access to Marcus, Siobhan collapsed on the floor and Sandra became distressed.

The situation was not helped by mixed messages from the hospital's press office, which varied from a few lines of text to far more information than given out about other patients (suddenly no reminders about data protection), and off-the-record briefings which appeared to contradict the official line.

A quick glance at the stories listed at the beginning of the article might lead some readers to point out, not unreasonably, that the best PR machine in the world would struggle under the weight of so much negative publicity.

While the Advertiser is confident they were all in the public interest, we are aware a balance needs to be struck and sometimes we do not get that balance right.

We do report on the positive things happening at Croydon University Hospital - such as in August when two sets of triplets were born in the maternity ward just 24 hours apart - but we want to do more.

Sadly that article is an isolated example of the hospital working with us to produce a genuine human interest story.

I have been a reporter for the Advertiser for six years and, during that time, I have lost count of the number of occasions we have asked the hospital's press office to let us know about the great things its staff do on a day-to-day basis.

Instead we are met with obstacles and excuses. Last year, for instance, we were offered an interview with Mr Goulston about the trust's plans for a new £17.5 million A&E only to be told, after six months of pestering, that the conversation was no longer on the cards.

Last year one of its cardiologists, a leading expert in his field, spoke to the Daily Mail and other national newspapers about what he called the saturated fat heart disease 'myth'. It was a perfect opportunity for us to show the hospital is leading the way in a particular field but, when the Advertiser asked the press office for an interview, it never materialised.

More recently one of our reporters expressed an interest in speaking to a nurse for a story about organ donors only to be told it would take a long time to arrange because staff would have to be "briefed" on what they could or could not say.

The hospital is far from the only public service dogged by obstructive and unhelpful PR. Nor would I suggest the barriers are, necessarily, deliberately created.

But, if it really wants to "change perceptions" it will not do so with poorly worded advertising campaigns.

Firstly, and most importantly, it needs to continue to make improvements to care, while building its new A&E, so that standards speak for themselves. 

While there have been horror stories over recent months, there are signs that patients are beginning to notice a difference. That must continue until the CQC returns and beyond if the town is to have a hospital with a secure future. 

Secondly, it needs to be far better at giving people real examples of the great work its staff clearly do under ever increasing pressure.

It doesn't have to give us those stories, but we definitely want to tell them. 

BLOG: After Croydon University Hospital's latest PR blunder, it's time to tell a different story


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