Once a year, I am invited to speak at an Away Day for the Reception Team at our client’s Regional Medium Secure Forensic Unit about managing media interest. The unit looks after people who have had contact with the criminal justice system for serious offences and who have a mental health diagnosis. It is a hospital that cares for people too ill to be managed in a prison environment – and it has been the focus media attention in the past – mainly from the local newspaper which follows its every move.
Sharing of knowledge
It’s easy to think of media enquiries and press interest as being focused on communication teams trading emails and having telephone conversations with reporters. But camera crews can turn up at any of our NHS sites if they think filming from the location will add value and interest to their news report, and reception staff are likely to be their first point of contact. So talking to this twenty-strong staff group about things to consider is good preparation. It gives them space to pick my brains, sound out situations and scenarios, and hear my thinking, and that of their colleagues and Ggwetha, their manager. In stressful times, people worry about doing the wrong thing. This group of staff already have a lot to think about in managing the security of the unit. Anticipating issues can really reduce their stress.
So we cover simple communication like what is OK for a film crew to film? This is straightforward – they can film from the pavement or outside the perimeter of the site. These are public areas and anyone could film our unit from the road – even from a passing bus! But we do want to prevent service users being inadvertently filmed breaching their privacy, and filming cannot happen on any of our sites without arrangement and supervision, so a staff representative needs to go and talk to the crew to explain this.
Handling film crews effectively
We cover how to handle this conversation – which might be filmed if the cameras are running. I advocate they use a soft but firm tone, smile and say “Hello. I am going to have to ask you to stop filming. Can I ask why you are filming and what organisation you are from?” I tell the staff that even if they are filmed, the TV company is unlikely to use it. All it will show is a member of staff being professional and pleasant, asking the crew not to film. It’s not very exciting – in TV terms!
And I counsel them not to try and cover the lens of the camera with their hand, or come out shouting, or cover their own face while talking. They risk looking like a cornered cowboy builder in a Dominic Littlewood programme on rogue traders!
We also talk about ways that less orthodox camera crews might operate – saying they’ve had permission to film, being over pally and conversational to get information, or being aggressive. But this reception team are very experienced. We work out they have about 120 years’ experience between them! They have seen it all!
It may not sound it, but despite the seriousness of the topic, the session is fun and there is a lot of laughter. I don’t think its nervous laughter – or even my brilliant jokes! I think its people enjoying the space to think, imagine and know that they could cope and feel confident if and when the situation arises. If there was prolonged media interest, we would base some of the communications team on the site. I always say to staff, ‘you look after the service users/patients – we’ll look after the press!’
I think such sessions are an important role for a Communications team to support and equip staff, share skills and ultimately to uphold the organisation’s reputation seamlessly.
Ggwetha says, “Janet’s sessions are valuable to the team and so informative. During these sessions, Janet provides a very interactive session which prepares us as a team to observe our professional boundaries, be assertive, yet remain professional when dealing with the press/media. Janet also delivers this session in a unique way that keeps the whole team engaged, sharing varied experiences and entertained throughout the whole session. A thought-provoking and beneficial session indeed – a slot on our agenda is guaranteed every year! Thank you, Janet and the communications team for being ever ready to support us with these sessions.”