8 takes from the top table

QE Gateshead Consultant and management dining room 1948

How do you get communications to the top table? How do you empower communications teams? How do you make sure your work makes a strategic contribution to the NHS and why does it all matter?

These were some of the questions considered at the latest NHS Providers communications network which tried to explore how we can demonstrate our true value to boards and ensure our work is closely supporting organisations.

For me, the most interesting part of the day were the thoughts of some key NHS comms people already operating at board level, who provided a few pointers on being successful once you get there.

Much of the advice went beyond being an excellent strategic communicator and focused on the skills needed to be a successful director in much broader terms.

These were the things I took from the session (with huge thanks to Daniel Reynolds, Rachel Royal, Louise Thompson, Anita Knowles and Anne Gregory for being excellent speakers)

This is the seismic issue of our times. The latest Edelman barometer shows falling trust in every institution that it measures. But we don’t need experts to tell us that do we? We’re sick of experts remember?

You can smell it in the air, whether it’s political disrupters like Brexit and Trump or savvy entrepreneurs tearing up the established order in private enterprise. This is the real challenge for communications, but also the key opportunity. Strong leadership and better communications will be critical issues over the coming years.

The NHS is a people business and a service industry that can only be delivered by those on the ground. In everything we do remember that must work for a human organisation and employee engagement is hugely important in the overall success.

Behaviours and personalities
Adapting and understanding behaviours and personalities can be very difficult at board level. Learn not to take things personally and then develop a thick skin.

Many people at board level are scared of comms and marketing because they think they will push them into saying things they aren’t comfortable with. There’s a real nervousness about having a conversation in public and perhaps a fear of trying new things. Risk appetite can be low around comms but it’s our job to explain that the real risk is in NOT having a conversation with our publics.

Understanding impact
Work hard to understand what impact comms has on the bottom line of your organisation and be clear about exactly how it directly affects patients. Make this a clear narrative and hammer it home. Be honest about your achievements and shout about it when things go well.

Professional development
Prepare yourself as an organisational leader, not just a communications leader. We must start to learn and understand our broader impact away from just comms. However, sometimes ‘speaking truth to power’ is easier if you’re not on the board, where you’re perceived as an outsider or voice of the people.

Internal vs external
There shouldn’t be a huge divergence of effort or big narrative difference here. The overall story you tell should be the same if it’s to be authentic.

To be a true leader you’ll need to help define clarity of purpose for the organisation by providing that strategic purpose.

Being a good, operational ‘pay and rations’ comms manager is hard. Being a leader is even harder.

Ultimately we are the guardians of an organisations public reputation because every decision we make has an impact on what the public thinks about us. That’s the crucial difference and the point at which we can have strategic influence.

Thanks to NHS Providers for a great session. You can read my post from the previous workshop here

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