PR ethics – PRCA and CIPR warn UK government to tell the truth

Both UK PR bodies have rebuked the UK government’s Department for Health and Social Care for breaching PR ethics by issuing a ‘New Hospital Programme Communications Playbook’ to NHS trusts that tells them to deliberately lie and mislead by pretending that major refurbishments or newly built wings at existing hospitals are ‘new hospitals’. PR ethics codes of both the CIPR and PRCA stress that members should not be deliberately misleading.

The playbook has been met with shock and outrage by communications and public relations professionals as it is rare to see such a blatant example of an employer ordering staff to deliberately breach professional codes of PR ethics. It is akin to an accountant being ordered to falsify accounts, or a lawyer being ordered to lie in court.

The playbook was leaked to Health Service Journal (HSJ) and also orders public sector NHS communications professionals to use party political slogans by reiterating Conservative ministers’ commitment to open “48 new hospitals by the end of the decade.” The commitment to build 40 new hospitals was a key Conservative Party manifesto pledge in the December 2019 election. The fact that civil servants in a government department are instructing public sector communicators to lie is a dangerous politicisation of their role. It’s also a clear indicator that the Conservative government believes it won’t meet its pledge to build new hospitals.

Last week, the new health secretary, Sajid Javid was met with anger and ridicule when he falsely claimed a new cancer unit at Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle was a new hospital. This lie made me particularly angry as it is the hospital where my Dad was diagnosed with cancer from which he died three months later. It’s impossible to express my fury at Javid for exploiting the deaths of cancer patients like my Dad.

The playbook twists reality by inventing a new definition of new hospital by claiming it includes “a major new clinical building on an existing site or a new wing of an existing hospital, provided it contains a whole clinical service, such as maternity or children’s services; or a major refurbishment and alteration of all but building frame or main structure, delivering a significant extension to useful life which includes major or visible changes to the external structure”.

As PRCA director general Francis Ingham points out no “normal person” would equate a new with a new hospital. Nuffield Trust director of strategy Helen Buckingham told the HSJ: “Stretching the definition of a ‘new hospital’ to cover all these initiatives is not going to convince the average patient or taxpayer, and might lead to a poor reception for what are actually much-needed local improvements.”

The politicisation of impartial public sector communications is so extreme the playbook even suggests a paragraph they should use: ““The government has committed to build 40 new hospitals by 2030, backed by an initial £3.7bn. Together with eight existing schemes, this will mean 48 hospitals by the end of the decade, the biggest hospital building programme in a generation.”

PR ethics

PRCA director general Francis Ingham said: “It is important that public communications are factual and neither misleading nor exaggerated. To any normal person, a new wing does not equate to a new hospital. In the interests of public confidence in such announcements, we would urge honest, straight-forward accuracy.”

CIPR president Mandy Pearse said: “Accuracy and honesty in public sector communications are important in maintaining public trust. This comment within the Playbook is ill-judged. I have every confidence that health PR professionals will act ethically and with integrity and describe capital spending in a way that is accurate for their local situation. We remind members that the CIPR code of conduct requires them to maintain the highest standards of integrity whilst dealing honestly and fairly with the public.”

While personally I hugely welcome to the CIPR’s and PRCA’s responses I’m concerned they don’t go far enough in supporting professionals in NHS trusts. It can be incredibly difficult for individual members of staff or even teams to refuse to implement orders from above.

In this case it’s not a judgement call about different ways to do something, but is a clear instruction from DHSC to deliberately mislead the public. It’s hard to see how this can be seen as anything other than an order to breach of the professional codes of conduct of both bodies. Members need to be reassured that the bodies will back them when they refuse to mislead the public. They need to know the CIPR and PRCA will work with the relevant trade unions to defend members in industrial tribunals.

One point I’ve made consistently as a CIPR board member and PRCA council member, and written about, is that professional codes of conduct only work if they are enforced. However, when an employer orders a member to breach PR ethics then it places them in an impossible position and causes huge stress which puts their mental health and wellbeing under intolerable pressure.