John Underwood, executive director at Freshwater UK, on his day at an NHS conference

A former award-winning TV journalist and director of communications at the Labour Party, John Underwood launched a healthcare communications consultancy in the 1990s and sold it to Freshwater UK three years ago. He now works on business development for the Wales-based office, but still enjoys “getting his hands dirty” on behalf of the clients…

My Day
6.15am: An unusually early start. We do a lot of work for the NHS and today we are staging a conference in London for the NHS Children’s Heart Surgery review team. 200 people are gathering for the conference, many of them world-class clinicians. Some will have concerns about the future shape of the children’s heart-surgery service across the UK. It could be a tricky day.

7.00am: On the train from South-West London I read a full-page spread in The Guardian about a new venture from the John Lewis department store. Later today it is opening the first of what may be many, smaller, retail-park outlets called “John Lewis at Home” focusing solely on homeware. A Freshwater UK team is handling the new store opening in Poole.

John Lewis is a forward-thinking, employee-owned business. Like all of us, it has been hit by the recession but it knows downturns present opportunities as well as threats. There are opportunities aplenty in the PR business too. Consolidation is inevitable and this will offer prospects and possibilities for a “buy-and-build” operation like Freshwater.

10.00am: In London the Freshwater Healthcare team led by co-director Suzy Garrett, has prep’d the speakers, checked the slides and videos, seated the delegates and it’s “GO”.

10.10am: I knew it would all be OK! Gosh, I need some strong coffee.

11.00am: A chance to catch up with the news websites and check what’s going on in the world. I wonder if Rupert Murdoch will get his way and that eventually we will all be paying for news access on the web. I somehow think not, but I spent last night with a couple of senior journalists from Sunday papers and they were speculating on whether national newspapers could follow the London Evening Standard and go “free”. The funding model for news is changing rapidly.

2.00pm: We are into the main NHS conference discussion sessions. Stakeholder engagement – from the health service through the property sector to utilities – is Freshwater’s fastest growing sector. Once upon a time PR professionals simply sent out press releases, then they tried to explain what their clients were doing. Today, stakeholder engagement is all about seeking to ensure the clients and its stakeholders build mutually beneficial relationships.

4.30pm: It’s been a lively debate. Evaluation forms are being collected and I brief the Department of Health on who said what.

6.30pm: Conversation with Freshwater’s chief executive Steve Howell about a couple of large tenders that need to be in tomorrow and then drinks with the client in St Katharine Docks. The client is happy. So am I.

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