Q&A: Neal Patel, RPS head of corporate communications

Neal Patel, head of corporate communications for the Royal Pharmaceutical Society talks to Corrinne Burns about how he got into the job, with the message to every practising pharmacist interested in engaging with the media that they have a story to tell.

Neal Patel, head of corporate communications at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS)

How did you get into this job?

I’m still a registered pharmacist: I trained with Boots, and worked in Brighton for ten years as a store manager and professional development pharmacist. That role introduced me to the fact that the NHS had an enormous influence over what happened in pharmacy.

I became a member of a professional executive committee. That was when I really got a sense that the world outside of pharmacy has the most influence over what happens within pharmacy. It was the difference between pharmacists having conversations about pharmacy with other pharmacists, and pharmacists actually talking to GPs, nurses, NHS managers and finance directors, about the potential for pharmacy to play a greater role in the NHS.

At that time I was well supported by the National Pharmacy Association (NPA). They used to send me email briefings on NHS policy, and case studies. I started replying to those emails, saying “Hey, I’ll do this!” I was really enthusiastic about what was going on locally and wanted to share it.

I then got a job at the NPA, in an NHS liaison role, and from there got a communications-specific role in media relations. Eight years ago, I came to the RPS. My role is to make sure we represent pharmacy well in the media, and also to show pharmacists what a great job the RPS is doing for them.

How do you represent pharmacy to the media?

When there’s a story in the news about medicines, we make sure pharmacists have a voice in that story. That could be having a pharmacist on TV, a background briefing for a journalist, or a comment in a web story or newspaper. What’s been great is that we’ve managed to get expert pharmacists to become our spokespeople. We’ve now got a team of around 30 pharmacists who are expert in everything from paediatrics to cancer to antibiotic resistance. So when we’re approached by the media, we can provide expertise.

We’re always looking for new spokespeople. We need people with good availability — people who can be at a studio or who are available for interview at short notice. That’s really important.

We know the topics the media are interested in, so we tend to focus on those areas. Not all of those are specialist — there are generalist issues too. For example, we often get asked about the difference between branded and generic medicines, and about antibiotics resistance — topics that are accessible to all pharmacists.

We also work with our local engagement colleagues making sure we have people who can speak to their local media outlets.

We do a lot with programme makers now, too. We advised Holby City, who were building a character around a pharmacist. We took a couple of hospital pharmacists into an editorial meeting and discussed the role of the pharmacist within the hospital. The programme makers were really impressed with what pharmacists did in terms of their advice to medics and nurses, patient care, involvement in prescribing and formulary development. We saw a lot of these themes play out in the programme, and the character, afterwards.

Why is media representation important for pharmacy?

My personal view, as a pharmacist, is that when I see a pharmacist speaking on a topic like antimicrobial resistance, I get a sense of pride that a pharmacist is giving their expert opinion on something that matters to the public. For every pharmacist, whatever sector, I think that gives the same feeling: that you’re one of this tribe of people that the media approach for an expert opinion on medicines.

I think it also works for the public: if they see a pharmacist on TV giving helpful, accessible advice on a health matter, they will be encouraged to ask their community pharmacist about that topic. The role we’re performing on TV is very similar to what pharmacists do when they counsel a patient on a new medicine. It’s taking something new and complicated and turning it into a form that the patient can understand, take away and do something about.

What advice would you give to members interested in engaging with the media?

If members get requests to speak to the media, we can make sure they’re fully briefed on the topic in hand. We do this a lot, so we know the kind of questions that might arise. We can help translate stuff that may be complicated — maybe from new research — into a form that the public can understand. We’ll also advise on previous RPS responses, to make sure that the message we get out is consistent.

You’ve got, if you’re lucky, two-and-a-half minutes on TV. So there’s no point in using those few minutes to get into the minutiae of a topic. If you go in with a plan and you know what you want to get across, you’re much more likely to get something worthwhile out there for you and the audience.

Print is as important as broadcast media. You might talk to a journalist for twenty minutes and everything you say will be on the record, so make sure that everything you do say is what you want to get across.

The opportunity for pharmacists to tell their own story locally is massive. Members can give us a ring and say, “I’m thinking of approaching my local radio station, or local paper, to talk about what we’re doing around, for example, dementia”. We’re always happy to advise people on those local stories.

The best way to make a connection is to supply a journalist with a good story. If you just say, “Hi! I’m a pharmacist, would you like a chat?”, you won’t get much of a response. But if you say, “I’m a local pharmacist with a great story about something that will affect local people with dementia” — then that’s interesting to the media. And every pharmacist has got a great story.

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, December 2017, Vol 299, No 7908;299(7908):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2017.20204077

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