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Why we wanted to get hold of emails from NHS’ communications bosses

PUBLISHED: 07:57 12 March 2020 | UPDATED: 09:31 12 March 2020

Henry Curtis-Williams took his own life in 2016. In 2019 his family received a settlement from the NSFT. Photo: Curtis-Williams family

Henry Curtis-Williams took his own life in 2016. In 2019 his family received a settlement from the NSFT. Photo: Curtis-Williams family

Archant

I have been writing about problems at our mental health service for this newspaper since 2012.

Doreen Livermore died after being attacked in a care home in King's Lynn by a man who had been under the supervision of the NSFT. Photo: ArchantDoreen Livermore died after being attacked in a care home in King's Lynn by a man who had been under the supervision of the NSFT. Photo: Archant

In that time, I have sat through inquests of those let down by the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust (NSFT) and interviewed many grieving and angry families.

I've also followed the continuous changes to the NSFT's management.

But we have never been able to give you the insight which we now have on the NSFT's public relations culture.

In January its communications manager, Mark Prentice, accidentally sent a boastful email to my colleague, intended for his bosses, in which he gloated about how the NSFT had 'got away (again)' with coverage of the death of a dementia patient.

The email shocked the NSFT's committed staff as much as it did our readers. Imagine seeing your hard work being undone by one stupid email.

But was it a one-off or part of a bigger problem?

To find out I put in a Freedom of Information Request to the NSFT asking for the emails of all its communications staff for the last two years in which they mention local media outlets, including this newspaper.

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The NSFT agreed to release the last six months' worth of emails and we now have copies of them.

There is no single email as gloating or as insensitive as the one Mr Prentice sent about the dementia patient, Doreen Livermore. Most of them are the standard back and forth between journalists trying to get information and press officers.

But some of the emails reveal that the sort of language Mr Prentice used was not a one-off. Perhaps more worryingly his language appears to have gone unchallenged by his bosses at the NSFT, until it was brought to light by the press.

When it comes to mental health, the language we use is crucial. Most of the media now rightly follow guidelines from the Samaritans on reporting suicides. Unfortunately, the NSFT's communications managers haven't all got the memo.

In one email from October last year, Mr Prentice describes the BBC covering a pay-out given by the NSFT to a family who lost their son to suicide as a 'malarkey'.

Henry Curtis-Williams took his own life days after being released by the NSFT. He was a young fashion student. His death was an utter tragedy which devastated his family. They rightly feel disgusted by the language Mr Prentice used.

In a jovial tone in that email Mr Prentice also describes how the NSFT's chief executive, Jonathan Warren, will appear on BBC Look East in case inspectors at the Care Quality Commission are watching TV that night. Otherwise, he says, the inspectors might think the NSFT 'may not come across as particularly caring'.

Sadly, it is too late for that.

The NSFT is right to worry about its reputation, but if it focused singularly on the quality of its care and stopped worrying about everything the media reports, it would get the good reputation it is so desperate to achieve.

-All the emails released to us by the NSFT communications team can be read here

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