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East Kent’s hospitals trust defends decision to hire £100,000 spin doctor to sugar-coat 'difficult decisions'

By Chris Pragnell

East Kent’s hospitals trust is recruiting a £100,000-a-year spin doctor tasked with sugar-coating “difficult decisions” in the coming months.

An advert posted on the trust’s website seeks “a truly great communicator” who can “embrace challenge and change”.

Heading up the recruitment drive is John Underwood – former Labour communications supremo.

East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust chief executive Matthew Kershaw
East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust chief executive Matthew Kershaw

Investigations reveal that Mr Underwood’s firm has billed the trust for more than £50,000 to date for outsourced consultancy work.

The trust – plunged into special measures by the Care Quality Commission health watchdog in 2014 – is fiercely defending its actions.

It says the newly recruited spin doctor will become an executive director on a salary “in line with that of other NHS trusts”.

It has turned to Mr Underwood to find the right candidate for the role because it “lacks the resources” to do it in-house, it adds.

In a 22-page job specification, the trust details a wish-list for its ideal candidate for the post of “director of communications and engagement”.

It seeks “somebody who is ambitious, tenacious, purposeful and creative”.

The candidate will be “somebody with presence, professional expertise and a genuine commitment to openness and transparency”.

But in a passage likely to alarm trust staff members, the advert states: “Over the coming months we have some difficult decisions to take and some difficult messages to deliver.

“We need a communications leader who has credibility with our staff and with our wider stakeholders.”

Kent and Canterbury Hospital
Kent and Canterbury Hospital

Asked what these difficult decisions will be, the trust spokeswoman says it is a matter of public record that challenges lie ahead.

She cites “increasing demand, difficulties in recruiting key staff, an ageing population, constraints upon expenditure etc” as examples.

“In tackling these challenges the trust may need to take difficult
decisions”, she added, without explaining what such decisions could involve.

The trust admits it has used Freshwater – a consultancy of which Mr Underwood is deputy chief executive – for work totalling £53,000 of taxpayers’ cash.

Freshwater’s services have included “providing on-site support and advice for the trust on the development of the trust’s communications strategy” and “development of proactive communications internal and external”.

It is staunchly defending calling on Mr Underwood to find a suitable candidate rather than relying on its own recruitment team.

“The NHS often seeks expert external advice when it does not have the necessary resource in house,” said the spokeswoman.

John Underwood, from Freshwater
John Underwood, from Freshwater

When contacted by KentOnline, Mr Underwood was unable to comment but said he would return the call.

Instead he referred us to the trust’s internal communications team.

The trust also admits paying a separate PR firm – Verve – to support its “cultural change programme”.

Verve billed the trust £49,000 for 108 days’ work.

In November the trust hired its new chief executive, Matthew Kershaw, who was nicknamed ‘the Axeman’ due to controversial cuts under his watch with his previous employer.

Former communications chief Peter Gilmore is thought to have left the trust shortly after Mr Kershaw’s appointment.

His departure is part of a wider shake-up of the trust communications team.

The trust said it “decided to make a number of changes designed to improve patient, staff and public communications”.

Last August we reported the trust is facing a budget shortfall of almost £40 million.

At a board meeting then-chief executive Chris Bown warned there may be "unpopular decisions ahead" as the trust attempted to return to the black.

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