Advice for dealing with press and social media

Published on: Thursday 31 May 2018

These guidance notes were originally produced in May 2017 and were re-published by CNWL on 26 March 2018. They are published here for general advice.

The Media: Advice for patients and families involved in traumatic events

We all know from experience that the press and social media will be interested in traumatic events and you may be approached yourself. Please remember that it is always up to you to decide if you want to participate or not.

In the middle of terrible events is never the best time to think things through so we’ve put this sheet together to give you a balanced view on dealing with the media.

The NHS has local media experts you can talk to if you want to do so; we are very experienced and can help you, whatever you decide to do.

The media will be interested in you and your family’s personal story and their questions are often about ‘how you feel.’

Truth is that people feel many things at times of stress and the media will concentrate on one aspect of your feelings – it is unlikely to be a fully rounded description of your experience.

On the other hand, we must recognise that the media have a responsibility to the public to report events quickly and to do so fairly and usually briefly. The journalist is not trying to catch you out but trying to get the best story possible.

So there are good reasons for speaking to the media and there are good reasons not to. It is your choice.

Reasons why:

  • It can help the public see and understand what has happened to you or your family
  • You might want to make an appeal for help
  • It can help you ask questions you feel need to be answered
  • It can allow you to pay tribute to people or services you found helpful
  • It can give you a ‘voice’ that others may benefit from
  • You will be given a broadly sympathetic platform.

Reasons why not:

  • You can say more than you intend when you are vulnerable, upset or angry
  • You can put other members of your family or friends in the spotlight which they don’t want, or you could accidentally pass-on confidential information about them
  • You can find recounting your experience very upsetting and find images of your upset being publicised which you may not like later
  • You might find that telling your story brings memories back to the surface; you can even relive the worst parts of them
  • Journalists' questions can seem very intrusive, and sometimes blunt, and you may find you react to that rather than what you intend
  • You may be unhappy about labels they give you,for example, being referred to as ‘victims’ in reports or other inaccuracies that bother you
  • You will lose any privacy (for yourself and others close to you) around the issue you speak about – and that can apply for a long time.

What to do:

  • Be realistic; be aware that the media is around
  • Don’t act on impulse; try to think about requests and prepare yourself if you decide to do them.
  • Take advice; do you know what your family’s wishes are?
  • Journalists want good, accurate and meaningful stories; they are not trying to catch you out, but it is their story about your story
  • Journalists will respect confidentiality but that needs to be agreed beforehand; live interviews make that very difficult; you’re only ‘off the record’ before you say something and they have acknowledged
  • If you feel you are being pestered just tell the journalist, firmly but politely, to stop.
  • If something is inaccurate you should point this out but it is unlikely corrections will be given the same publicity the original story had
  • If you agree to be interviewed they will usually arrange to pick you up for a studio interview, or they may want to come to your home – think about that
  • It is very unlikely you will be paid for pictures or interviews
  • Sometimes it is hard to move through a gathering of cameras; if there is no alternative it’s always best to walk through it with someone, as normally as possible, looking straight ahead, without commenting – don’t cover your face (as that draws attention to you).

We want to give you a balanced view but it is your choice.

Crisis and trauma: advice to staff about social media:

NHS staff use social media for personal and professional reasons - and that’s a good thing - but it is hard to distinguish between these identities at a time of major media interest; at such times what you intend to be a sympathetic, compassionate statement can turn into an unwanted media story about you, your colleagues and your patients.

Social media is always monitored by journalists who are looking for a story and you may find yourself in the wrong place at a journalist’s right time!

So here are some common sense reminders:

  • Be self-aware: if you are upset or traumatised by what you have seen and heard don’t use social media.
  • Be realistic: the media will be searching for stories at times of traumatic events; you could lead them onto something or draw attention to your area of work, which can then put your team under media scrutiny and pestering as it spreads as other journalists then call to check out stories
  • Be professional: you will see and hear things during your shifts that should always be regarded as confidential and spoken to you in a ‘safe place’ by injured and traumatised people
  • Staff know not to reveal any confidential information but be wary of accidentally identifying people in photos. Sometimes the police will also ask staff to avoid comments and statements that may interfere with a criminal investigation and that includes social media
  • Be aware of not accidentally revealing something about the incident which is not already in the public domain. Often in terror incidents the receiving hospitals are not named in the media straight away, so don’t post that you’ve had a busy shift dealing with victims, as this will confirm something which isn’t already known
  • Only post useful, factually accurate, information about where people can get help; especially if you are using an incident’s hashtag
  • Don’t respond to journalists’ tweets – they are seductive!
  • Never tweet or retweet rumours about what you have heard, especially from patients.
  • Avoid opinions about what you have seen or experienced, which can find their way into generalised stories about that hospital or Trust or the NHS in general
  • If you need to let family members know about you and what’s happening, be careful you don’t give them material to retweet – tell them what you need them to know, and that you will talk to them later.
  • Be honest: If you accidentally break these guidelines you should delete your post and report your action to your manager so they know you have acted responsibly.

Advice to young people involved in Traumatic events about social media

Everyone uses social media to tell people about experiences – what you've been through, what you’ve seen, offering support and comfort, how to help and this is all good – it keeps those who know you in the loop about where you are and how you’re feeling, and it can increase public knowledge and understanding about events, from real witnesses at the scene.

But it’s also true that other people will use your information for their own ends and when you’re in the heat of the moment you may say more than you intend or later regret.

So here’s some things to think about when you’ve been involved in a traumatic event.

Journalists who monitor social media can follow-up your posts and though that may sound attractive, it can also put your life into wider arenas which intrudes into your personal life or your family or your friends.

You can also attract trolls; people who draw the most negative conclusions they can, or question your motives that don’t exist or just be plainly unpleasant and abusive, often anonymously too; they can say things like you’re only doing something for money or to abuse the system and so on.

This is incredibly hurtful – which is what the sender intends – and it will upset you, or make you angry and that’s never the best time to think about what you tell.

It’s important to realise that the advantages of social media outweigh the disadvantages; you need to keep focussed on the advantages.

After an upsetting event try to stay off social media in case you say more than you intend because of what you experienced; messaging your story can keep you in the trauma; retelling your story can also bring back bad memories and you can even relive the trauma.

Your body will naturally help you recover but help yourself too by staying off it for a while or severely restricting it to immediate family and trusted friends, asking them to help you by not passing it on.

If you get abusive messages, don’t respond or reply but don’t ignore them – delete them and do what you can to block the sender from your feed. Consider reporting hateful and abusive messages to the police and service providers.

Tell a family member or a close trusted friend who’s a good listener, about it and how it made you feel.

Remember that the troller doesn’t know you, no matter how much they appear to; they are exploiting your vulnerability.

Stay in control of your own story – it belongs to you!