My Friday public involvement surgery: why comms depts can be the kiss of death

A hasty and unscientific straw poll by me this week suggests that 8 out of 10 CEOs who are also cat owners continue to place responsibility for public involvement with their communications or PR team.

In my view it can be the proverbial ‘kiss of death’ for public involvement if we agree that PPI is essentially about changing the way decisions are made in an organisation. Sometimes I it is a deliberate bit of sabotaging by the top team who would rather just continue as they are.

All organisations who are biting the bullet on public involvement need to ask themselves one basic question. Is this about making us look a little bit more patient and public friendly? Or is it about changing our whole culture so that patients and the public are partners in how we think and plan and run this place?

Handing line management responsibility to your comms department is likely to mean that – intentionally or not – you will end up achieving the former but not making a dint of difference to the latter. For comms is essentially about managing reputations albeit through increasingly sophisticated means of engagement.

I have seen exceptions to this outcome but not as many as I would like.

I was at a meeting on Monday where it was interesting to hear the patients in the room – as opposed to the fully paid-up patient advocates – very strongly iterate that the one determinant of real change in an organisation was seeing public involvement reflected in its governance.

Given that for most organisations public involvement is an emerging area for them, I would suggest that in those first few years strategy and measurement should come directly from the Board and the CEO. Alongside that should be a commitment to give it it’s own operational plan and budget line that sits outside those of other functions. A small group drawn from the senior management team should be charged with sharing responsibility for this plan and making it happen. Arriving at this will involve a process of understanding how to make this work relevant and important to all functions.

This approach is doable and desirable for even the smallest organisations. It is far better than smothering public involvement in a smog of public relations work.

By the way I fibbed about then being cat owners.

Have a great weekend.

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