Five healthcare PR lessons from the political parties

Manifesto funding pledges ‘would all fall short’

With the general election just around the corner, our potential leaders-in-waiting are intensifying campaign efforts. As anticipated by many, the NHS, a proud British institution, features heavily in political manifestos.

Amongst the talking points – privatisation, waiting times, pooled budgets for health and social care integration, GP access, seven-day-a-week services – is an underlying message: we will improve quality of care and make the NHS sustainable for current and future generations.

It must be noted that I am a swinger – in a purely voting sense. I am a ‘swing voter’, someone who is not supporting any political party. It has to be said I have not made up my mind who I will vote for come 7th May. This blog is not an endorsement on who to vote for – that is your job to decide.

1. Powerful advertising helps

Like two main political parties, there is sometimes a perception that advertising and PR do not work well together. Both have different ways of working, despite aiming for the same goal. Take Labour’s ‘The doctor can’t see you now’ poster campaign, unveiled this week. The message is compelling and direct but the real creative part is that it is a play on the Tory’s 1978 ‘Labour isn’t working campaign’.

The result? Labour’s claim that ‘hundreds fewer GP surgeries [are] open evenings and weekend’ was well-promoted. Apart from being a clear scare tactic, the principle of using a creative message, integrated across both PR and marketing channels to get people talking about your product or company is a good one.

2. Keep it real

Away from the arguing within Parliament, politicians use people’s stories and real-life scenarios to sell their vision or showcase their successes. In the Labour party conference (I realise I may sound quite pro-Labour now!) Harry Smith, 91, gave a speech relaying the importance of a free health service. The BBC reported that the speech was “greeted with a standing ovation and widely praised on Twitter.”

Using advocates effectively, in this case healthcare staff or patients, is a real asset to promoting your business. Case studies, videos, presentations that can tug on the heartstrings of your customers or prospects are a powerful way of showing how your product or service can make a real difference through mainstream and social media channels.

3. Be credible

“The NHS doesn’t need warm words, it needs hard cash” claimed Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg this week when launching a £250m fund for new medical technology. Clegg cited information and direction from NHS England CEO Simon Steven’s Five Year Forward View, adding instant credibility to his pledge and demonstrating how it will help the health service in the long-term.

How can this be applied for commercial purposes in healthcare? Perhaps using medical or clinical contacts to speak knowledgeably around an area of expertise that relates to your product or service? A guest blog on your website? Hosting a Twitter Q&A or chat? Options vary according to how much resources you can commit.

4. Manage expectations

Different parties have different views on how to achieve a better health service. Their promises can bring optimism for change, but also anxiety. David Cameron’s “no top—down organisation of the NHS” pledge was soon contradicted after settling in at number 10. Unfortunately this is part of political life – stating your party’s intentions and then actually deciding which things can be delivered.

Despite all the good work the NHS does, it finds itself under constant criticism for under-performance. This can lead to a resistance by some trusts or providers to shout about successful projects that have been completed, fearing further scrutiny. If you are working with the NHS and want to promote your projects, try to outline expectations early on around how both parties (not political in this case) can benefit from PR opportunities.

5. It’s sensible to be prepared

On message. On brand. On the back foot? Politicians are experts in saying the right messages at the right time. But the recent party leaders’ TV debate showed that if you are going to make a claim, make sure you have your angles covered. Nigel Farage was criticised for speaking out about so-called ‘health tourism’, and had to defend his comments some two days later.

Any claims you make need to be backed up with evidence before promotional activity begins. One common question is how can you qualify what a ‘leading’ business is? Do you have the most market share? Is your product or service the best? Can you prove this? Whilst a robust key messages document outlines all the positives, it is sensible to anticipate any negative comments or queries you may encounter.

Politicians have a negative reputation for spin; it is a central part of modern politics. And whilst the high profile nature of political parties gives them a bigger target audience to hit, it does mean there is less room for error. Political PR has to hit the mark, and the tools used to deliver these intense campaigns warrant some recognition – even if you do not agree with the policies themselves!

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