This assignment was carried out in a health institution on the west side of the country. The institution is a not-for-profit tertiary healthcare facility; it has a capacity of 150 beds and serves a population of close to ten thousand annually. An association of health professionals in the west side of the country owns and runs the facility. This institution was founded to cater for the less privileged in the community, it serves both the insured and uninsured population. The facility boasts of a legacy of excellent healthcare service provision with state of the art diagnostic equipments. The institution upholds the policy of evidence based clinical practice and provides an array of curative and preventive clinical services for both acute and chronic diseases. Over the last decade, the hospital has been associated with the care of chronic lifestyle diseases, which have emerged to be a growing health problem in most parts of the developing world (Adeyi, Smith, & Robles). These lifestyle diseases include, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, chronic neurological disorders, complications of strokes, and coma of various causes. The family health and infectious diseases management division of the clinical department of this institution is equally well developed, it is dedicated to serve patients with various infectious illnesses including gastrointestinal complications. Maternity and child health services are also offered.
The institution is patient centered facility with various departments ranging from the clinical management department, human resources, public relations, and hospitality and catering to facilities management. The person interviewed was the communications director, who is in charge of public relations. The director started by giving an overview of the department and specific duties of various public relations officers in this department.
Public relations department is a very important department in this health facility. The department is the channel through which the institution interacts with people both within the hospital and outside. A team of public relations officers serves as the conduit through which the communications are transmitted. Internally, the officers are charged with the task of interacting and passing on important information concerning the institution to both clinical and none clinical staff. These staffs include physicians, nurses, administrators, managers, subordinates, and junior staff. They also interact with patients and their relatives. Apart from these direct interactions, public relations officers within this department are also in-charge of writing and editing internal communications, which include; quarterly hospital newsletter, patient guide brochures, clinical guide handouts and service promotion materials. In addition to these tasks, a specific public relations officer is responsible for handling all media calls for any inquiry about the hospital or for scheduled interviews with hospital staff and/or shooting of documentaries relevant to the institution.
Managing external communication is the other key role that particular public relations officers within the department are often called upon to handle. Indeed, public relations in the literal meaning of the phrase mean interaction with the public (Davis, 2003). A public relations officer is therefore, mandated to manage all communications between the institution and the public. He/she writes and distributes press releases. The officers in this position organize events between the public and the hospital.
The institution has a well-organized formal public relations plan. The public relations department is the liaison not only between various departments within the institution but with the public and clients as well. Provider – client relations is very important in a service-oriented institution like this heath care facility, without a well laid down public relation strategy the provision and delivery of correct information would be severely compromised. The public relations department in this institution plays multiple roles in ensuring above board communication and events management. Some of the activities, which define their public relation plan, include:
- keeping tab on what is published in the daily news concerning the hospital and ensuring they are the correct reflection of situation(s) and/or event(s). A specific officer is assigned this duty; he/she has to keep records of all the news report relevant to the institution;
- two or three public relations officers are also assigned the duty of ensuring that there is a smooth passage of patients in all floors, and that executive patients are taken good care of, these officers are also in charge of attending to any queries that the patients’ relatives may have in relation to service provision;
- event management section of this department is responsible for ensuring that all events – conferences, workshops and symposiums – are well organized and publicized, an officer in these section draws up an annual events calendar and liaise with all vendors needed to ensure proper planning and management of events;
- the external section of the department organizes for reception of visitors to the facility, they also organize and carry out institutional tour for these guests. Public relations officer in this section are also in charge translation of foreign language for visitors and patients;
- the publishing and announcements division is responsible for all print communication that the hospital sends out and receives, they verify and edit the content of all external communication in line with laid down policy and vet incoming communications such as advertisement posters to be put up in the hospital notice board.
The department has a workforce of fifteen dedicated public relations officers. The officers are assigned to different sections; each officer has distinct duties and responsibilities as indicated in the public relation plan. As mentioned earlier, the head of the public relations department in this institution is the director of communication. The director is a specialist in the public relations field with a postgraduate degree in corporate communications and marketing. As the head of the department, the director participates in formulation and implementation of policies that touch on public relations. The director prepares annual public relations plans that are integrated to the overall plan of the institution, this includes annual departmental budget. In case of crisis or a difficult situation within the department or a difficult public relations issue within and outside the institution, the director is often called upon to attend to such crisis. The most important role in this position involves the review and subsequent confirmation of all communication that goes out of the institution. The communication to the public must be correct since this will directly reflect on the public’s perception of the institution. The incumbent in this position has a clearly cut out responsibility – the buck stops with him/her.
The role of the director does not directly touch on disaster management; however, considering that this department is involved with client relations and risk management, it will inevitably be involved in disaster management. It is also important to note that the key functions of public relations cuts across all departments of the institution. Without the regulation and review of information by the public relations department effectively and accurate communication may not take place. All pieces of information in case of a disaster or emergency must therefore, come from the public relations department. Similarly, disaster management information brochures used by the institution are developed by the publishing and announcement section of the public relations department and then reviewed by the director before being ratified by the risk management committee and adopted by the institution.
A number of challenges are experienced in conducting the duties of public relations particularly in the health care setting. Public relations activities are often regarded as a mere publicity stunts and a front that organizations use to advertise to the public. The public relations department is often the first to be blamed in case of a media blunder by any of the institution’s staff member, even when at the time of the incident the staff member was not on duty or he/she was acting on he/her own individual capacity. In many instances, several such incidences are conveniently labeled as “Public relations blunder” or “Public relations nightmare”. The public relations director is supposed to take responsibility since the buck stops with her/her.
In a health care institution, ethics is of utmost importance. In some rare circumstances, the director of public relations is confronted with a very difficult decision, particularly when information injurious to the institution reputation has to be communicated. He/she has to choose between presenting objective information and risk giving the institution a wrong reputation or present untrue information to cover up for the institutions wrongs and preserve its reputation. The director dilemma in such instance is the ethical consideration and the plight of the institution.
Often the communication delivered to the public particularly service information brochures have been challenged as being a form of advertisement in contravention of the code of ethics for healthcare providing facilities. This presents another challenge that public relations practitioners in a health care setting are faced with. In conclusion, however, the director asserted that in general the practice of public relation though challenging in a healthcare facility, is a very fulfilling endeavor. The director is proud to be associated with this particular institution.
This exercise served to reinforce the notion that public relations remains the same venture irrespective of the organization. The core business of a public relations department is to provide exposure and help create a positive public image of an organization. This they accomplish using various methods, which include, good media liaison, events organization and publicity, this is not different in a healthcare facility. However, the health sector presents different challenges to the public relations practitioner. The level of interaction is varied from physicians and nurses to the hospital administration and managers. The variation in the nature of interaction deserves a special note. The practitioner has to have mastery of technical medical terminologies for effective communication. The head of this department should therefore, have a good understanding of medical knowledge.
Adeyi, O., Smith, O. & Robles, S. (2007). Public Policy and the Challenge of Chronic Noncommunicable Diseases. Washington, DC: World Bank.
Davis, A. (2003). Everything you should know About Public Relations: Direct Answers to over 500 Questions. London: Kogan.