EDP: Opinion: Why we wanted to get hold of emails from NHS’ communications bosses

Tom Bristow of the Eastern Daily Press explains:

I have been writing about problems at our mental health service for this newspaper since 2012.

In that time, I have sat through inquests of those let down by the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT) and interviewed many grieving and angry families.

I’ve also followed the continuous changes to the NSFT’s management.

But we have never been able to give you the insight which we now have on the NSFT’s public relations culture.

In January its communications manager, Mark Prentice, accidentally sent a boastful email to my colleague, intended for his bosses, in which he gloated about how the NSFT had ‘got away (again)’ with coverage of the death of a dementia patient.

The email shocked the NSFT’s committed staff as much as it did our readers. Imagine seeing your hard work being undone by one stupid email.

But was it a one-off or part of a bigger problem?

To find out I put in a Freedom of Information Request to the NSFT asking for the emails of all its communications staff for the last two years in which they mention local media outlets, including this newspaper.

Spin doctors don’t create the values of the senior management and Board of an organisation: they reflect them.

Which is why what they write is so important.

But some of the emails reveal that the sort of language Mr Prentice used was not a one-off. Perhaps more worryingly his language appears to have gone unchallenged by his bosses at the NSFT, until it was brought to light by the press.

When it comes to mental health, the language we use is crucial. Most of the media now rightly follow guidelines from the Samaritans on reporting suicides. Unfortunately, the NSFT’s communications managers haven’t all got the memo.

In one email from October last year, Mr Prentice describes the BBC covering a pay-out given by the NSFT to a family who lost their son to suicide as a ‘malarkey’.

Henry Curtis-Williams took his own life days after being released by the NSFT. He was a young fashion student. His death was an utter tragedy which devastated his family. They rightly feel disgusted by the language Mr Prentice used.

In a jovial tone in that email Mr Prentice also describes how the NSFT’s chief executive, Jonathan Warren, will appear on BBC Look East in case inspectors at the Care Quality Commission are watching TV that night. Otherwise, he says, the inspectors might think the NSFT ‘may not come across as particularly caring’.

Sadly, it is too late for that.

The NSFT is right to worry about its reputation, but if it focused singularly on the quality of its care and stopped worrying about everything the media reports, it would get the good reputation it is so desperate to achieve.

We hear that Mark Prentice is currently facing a disciplinary.

While it is easy to say that Mark Prentice is getting what he deserves, in reality he is not being punished for the awful things he wrote, with which NSFT bosses never had any issue while they were private.

Rather, Mark Prentice is being punished for the public finding out the truth about the values at the top of NSFT, for his accidentally copying-in an EDP journalist.

If Mark Prentice is sacked by NSFT, it will be for selecting the wrong name from a drop-down menu in Microsoft Outlook.

We already know that front line NSFT staff believe they won’t be treated fairly if they make a mistake, which is a key component of a safe and effective culture. The NHS Staff Survey shows that only about 45 per cent, less than half, of NSFT’s staff believe they will be treated fairly by NSFT if they are involved in an error, near miss or incident.

Getting rid of Mark Prentice won’t change the culture at NSFT: we are aware that the senior management are using private and encrypted WhatsApp messages and groups to attempt to avoid the Freedom of Information Act and scrutiny.

NSFT needs regime change to ensure new and decent values, genuine clinical leadership and co-production with patients and carers.

Not just a scapegoat and business as usual.

High quality investigative local journalism is vital to our democracy.

Click on the image below to read the full story and the toxic Comms emails on the EDP website:

17 thoughts on “EDP: Opinion: Why we wanted to get hold of emails from NHS’ communications bosses”

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