This, I think, will strike a chord with anyone who has had an interview recently, or been responsible for setting them up: the interview practical test.

I’m one of those people who is way better on the practical than the interrogation part. Face it, I’m never doing Mastermind. But with my years of experience that should go without saying.

My brand of PR is the type that spends half of its time keeping things out of the papers as much as it spends the other half getting things in them. There was the time a well-known reporter for a Sunday newspaper called me at 4pm on the Friday after the first announcement over HS2, and tried to trip me up by asking me if my PTE would rather the government spent the money on a new high-speed rail line or improving the existing local network. The answer is “both”, and having gone round in circles for 15 minutes he gave up. Result: no coverage for my PTE either way in the Sundays, no awkward questions for me at 9am on Monday.


Anyway: as I mentioned I had an interview last month, and the pre-chat question went along these lines. You’re the only one in the office on lunchtime when the call comes in from a TV reporter about a patient [it was an NHS role] who had had a cancer operation cancelled for the second time, because there are no beds. The patient has also spoken to their MP, who has called your Chief Executive. They want someone on the sofa at 6pm.

What do you do?

1 Establish the facts

Who said what to whom about the postponements? Where did they get their information from? Is this something than can be nipped in the bud quickly because it was a miscommunications somewhere, or do we have wider issues around bed availability? If so, why don’t we know about it already? If the MP has been in touch with the CEO, why hasn’t someone told us?

If you can’t establish all of the facts as quickly as possible your response could get you into more trouble.

2 Find your spokesperson

You will probably have a list of who to approach depending on the subject and the severity, but it also means you’ve let people further up the food chain know what’s happening, what your approach is and who you’d like to put forward.

3 Draft your response

Apologise. “I’m sorry that [patient] has had their operation cancelled.” First thing, every time, is to show you care – even if you can’t do anything about it or it’s not your fault.

Why has this happened? “We are experiencing | have experienced a shortage of beds owing to …”. There’s a reason, be honest about it.

What are you going to do? “We’re working with hospitals across the Trust and with our partners in the health profession to free up more [critical care | cancer | coronavirus | whatever] beds so that we can resume operations and patient care.” Or whatever it’s about. I work in comms, not healthcare…

Apologise, again. “I understand how difficult it must be to hear that an appointment has had to be cancelled, and that this will be a trying time for the patient and their family. We are working hard to enable the operation to be rescheduled as soon as possible.”

4 The deadline is not the deadline

You may need to speak with people who aren’t around. You might not have your designated spokesperson to hand. Say so. “We can’t get you someone on the sofa at 6pm today, but we might be able to have someone tomorrow, once we’ve got a definitive answer for you.”

Just remember: “No comment” is never the answer, even if your answer is, in effect, no comment.

Relationships are a key element to public relations. Make sure you have good ones with your local and trade contacts, so that they believe you when you say you’re working on it. They won’t push too hard if there’s a story coming and they don’t think you’re stalling or hiding something.

It’s not like when the W*******d Express would call at 10am on a Wednesday, when their deadline was midday. Not. Going. To. Happen.

And finally…

Develop some crisis comms procedures if you haven’t already (the NHS does, for major incidents and similar (MAJAX)). What steps do you need to take, who do you need to keep informed, who might have the information you need to draft your response?

Stick the procedures and contacts in your phone, PC or tablet. Or print out and laminate. But proper planning really does prevent piss-poor performance here.

The main thing is… don’t panic. Panic is where the story you don’t want to appear lives.