PR opportunities and how we handle celebrity visits in the wake of the Savile investigation

One of the key recommendations that came out from the Savile abuse investigation today was that NHS trusts should have a policy in place around guidance for handling VIP and celebrity visits to hospitals.

As a PR professional, I see the need to let great ideas can flourish and maximise PR opportunities. But this must be done with standards and safeguards in place.  This includes VIP and celebrity visits to any location, regardless of this being in the NHS or not.

The term ‘celebrity’ as it is understood today originates from a study called The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1961), by historian and social theorist Daniel Boorstin who defines the celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness”.

When celebrities appear on television we develop feelings of intimacy toward them.  They are instantly recognisable and ‘known’ to us due to the fact their image is broadcast into our homes on a regular basis. By the time Savile arrived at Stoke Mandeville Hospital he would have been regarded as a ‘star’ and ‘special’ as well as feeling familiar to those around him, someone they thought they ‘knew’.

The report outlines that as a celebrity volunteer Savile was allowed unprecedented and unsupervised access to Stoke Mandeville Hospital. He used his celebrity status to gain uncontrolled access to vulnerable people across six decades.  This was ‘allowed’ in the hope that Savile’s fame would contribute to the reputation of, and fundraising activities for, the hospital.

But there was no clear understanding from the outset of how this contribution would be made and no-one considered how swiftly he embedded himself and how intense his contribution was to become.

Barrister, Kate Lampard, who was involved in the report published today identified a number of recommendations for all NHS trusts, based on the learning from this investigation.  These were outlined in today’s House of Commons speech by Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt MP. It included that policies on celebrity visits, as well as social media access policies, should be developed as future safeguards.  I’ll cover the social media policy another time as this has been a focus for my recent MSc dissertation.

Whilst I’m not into the application of excessively stringent policies on the activities of NHS trusts where good PR is concerned, today’s report obviously highlights areas where NHS managers have been naïve to say the least.

My roles requires me to draft such policies and manage occasions with VIPs. As a result, I’m disappointed today’s report doesn’t cover details on what such a policy should contain.  So I am offering my ideas.

Some considerations
  • The celebrity or VIP should be appropriately aligned to your brand (should not need explanation)
  • The purpose of the visit should be clear and purposeful
  • Is it a media / public or private visit? If you invite members of the media consider their specific needs; consider how you will maintain discreetness throughout e.g. no ‘live tweeting’ of events
  • What is the schedule for the visit? It is good practice to meet the VIP at the door, introduce them to a key contact e.g. chair or chief executive who is by their side at all times, even during private visits
  • Consider all operational and security aspects. This includes extra security as needed
  • Consider the risks of the visit – increased interest / visitors; perception by staff, the media or the public (or other stakeholders); risks to delivery of patient care and well-being as well as the general operation of the hospital before, during and after the visit

Some of these points would not have stopped the abuse by Savile. If he had not been accompanied during his visits, I would not be writing this today.

What do you think? Is there anything else we should consider? Maybe we can create a simple template everyone in the NHS can use.

Academic sources: Boorstin DJ, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1961)

Marshall DP, Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture (2013)