Make no mistake: it is absolutely unprecedented for a person such as east Kent hospitals chief executive Susan Acott to decline an interview with local media in the way she has.
In my near two decades covering east Kent, I’ve interviewed all her predecessors and was looking forward to meeting her at this potentially exciting time with a new hospital for Canterbury a serious prospect.
The trust, however, was having none of it. After more than three months of trying to arrange a standard one-to-one, it said no.
- When did it become acceptable to drive like an idiot on city roads?
- Estate left looking “like municipal tip”
Inevitably, this means that Susan Acott is either an utter fool – or has been spectacularly badly advised by her PR handlers. I strongly suspect it is the latter, but more of that later.
In refusing to agree the interview, the trust offered the weirdest of pretexts: that it didn’t share the values of the Canterbury Journal, an independent community news service which welcomes contributions from numerous groups and individuals. One wonders what values the trust has in mind given that 40% of respondents to an east Kent hospitals staff survey reported that they had been victims of bullying within their place of work.
This explanation also came with an admission that the trust was discriminating against me personally, an execrable new low for public sector communications. I can honestly say that I’ve never been the target of such personal discrimination in my line of work before.
In these preceding months, however, the trust also betrayed its worries about an interview – largely because the last interview I did was with previous chief executive, Matthew Kershaw, backfired.
It backfired because I had gone there in March 2017 to talk to him about the reorganisation plan the trust was frantically working on for its three main hospitals. There were special fears about the future of the Kent and Canterbury.
Instead of answers, Mr Kershaw subjected me a to verbal diarrhoea of jargon and blather and meaningless strings of words which brought no one any closer to any understanding about the fate of healthcare in east Kent.
It would have been a dereliction of duty not to have reflected this to my readers.
My report did not go down well with Natalie Yost, the hospital trust’s director communications.
The £100,000-a-year apparatchik called my former boss to whine that it hadn’t turned out the way she’d wanted. Such a response is as crass as it is naive and born of the conceit that journalists should thoughtlessly regurgitate whatever rubbish they’re fed.
(Incidentally, do remember that £100,000 per year figure next time you’re languishing in pain in A&E for 12 hours because there aren’t enough nurses on shift).
Mr Kershaw’s windy verbiage and Ms Acott’s no interview serve merely once again to expose a severe malfunction in trust’s bureaucratic machinery: a persistent failure to adequately communicate.
This isn’t new. Indeed, the worst press officer I’ve ever dealt with, Jim Murray, used to work in the very same communications department we are discussing today.
A charmless, socially incompetent little Weeble of a man, Murray’s colleagues unaffectionately referred to him behind his back as “Knobhead”. He once threw a tantrum and slammed the phone down on me when I refused to talk off the record to him.
Following his departure, it got little better. For years requests for information have frequently stalled or gone unanswered. I recall once waiting a week for a 76-word statement which offered the taxpayers of east Kent the sum total of zilch about the hospitals they use.
Why is this important, you might ask. It is important because people passionately care about the hospitals they use. Consequently, the media acts as their eyes and ears, feeding a thirst for information about something so dear and so crucial to their lives.
Thus, a few years back when the east Kent hospitals trust announced it was looking for a new £100K head of comms, I urged it at this critical period in its journey to find a candidate capable of dispensing with PR chicanery.
I wrote that the best PR is no PR at all. It is straight talking, it is honesty, it is openness, it is transparency, it is accountability, it is being answerable to the public, it is democracy. This week the east Kent trust has failed miserably in all these categories – yet again.
The refusal of Susan Acott to take part in an interview has created the impression of a panicked, uncertain organisation terrified of even of the mildest scrutiny of the work it does.
Its decision can be rightly viewed as antagonistic, counter-productive, phenomenally stupid and short-sighted as well as ultimately a betrayal of the public interest.
And all because of a melancholy inability to grasp even the most basic elements of the art of communication…