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Public health doctors “hopeless” at using media

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 30 October 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1056
  1. Annabel Ferriman, news editor (aferriman{at}
  1. BMJ

    PR chief says they must learn how to present their stories

    Public health doctors have long criticised the media for getting their priorities wrong and giving space to relatively minor problems, such as the recent outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), while ignoring the major threats of smoking, alcoholism, and obesity.

    Professor Sîan Griffiths, president of the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, illustrated the point at a seminar organised by health think-tank the King's Fund last week, by comparing the media response to two reports in which she had been involved.

    The first was on the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong. Professor Griffiths had co-chaired the committee set up by the Hong Kong government to assess the effectiveness of the health authorities' response. It was published in October and had received front page coverage in all the Hong Kong newspapers. Altogether 299 people had died in the episode, 63% of whom were older people.

    By contrast, a report on older people in the United Kingdom dying from cold—issued in March by the National Heart Forum, Help the Aged, the Faculty of Public Health Medicine, and others—produced almost no media response at all. That report, Fuel Poverty and Health: A Toolkit for Primary Care Organisations, tackled the issue of why Britain had 40 000 excess deaths every winter, when many colder countries did not see a similar increase.

    “Three hundred deaths in Hong Kong resulted in huge coverage. Forty thousand excess deaths in the United Kingdom got no coverage at all,” Professor Griffths told the seminar, which had been organised to discuss the recent King's Fund report Health in the News: Risk, Reporting and Media Influence (BMJ 2003;327: 688).

    But public health doctors at the seminar were told that they themselves were partly to blame. Ron Finlay, chief executive of the advertising and public relations agency Fishburn Hedges, said: “Public health professionals must learn how to present their stories to the media.”

    BBC radio correspondent Roger Harrabin, one of the authors of the King's Fund report, agreed. Public health professionals “are pretty hopeless” at presentation, he said.

    Professor Griffiths also concurred. She said that public health doctors had learnt that lesson in Hong Kong. Consequently a series of seminars had been organised between journalists and public health doctors to improve communication. She suggested that it might be a good idea to do something similar in the United Kingdom.

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