5 lessons on NHS comms strategy


Is it an art or is it a science? That seems to be the perennial question asked of corporate comms so it may be that the NHS was trying to tell us something by hosting a North East Event at the International Centre for Life.

The International Centre for Life opened in 2000 and as well as being an excellent visitor attraction,  almost 600 people from 35 countries work there including researchers, doctors and nurses.

Much of the day went on to focus on how communications teams can use a more planned, scientific approach to their work allowing them to add much more value at a time of increasing change and shrinking resources.

There were some brilliant practical sessions and it was fantastic to see people from right across the country meeting in Newcastle, rather than London, to talk about communications challenges in the NHS.

Northumbria’s director of communications and corporate affairs Claire Riley did much of the heavy lifting and provided some excellent tips for people working in the NHS and wider public sector, while a trio from Cumbria provided a brilliant live case study of managing service change.

These were my big take aways from the day:

Adding value

All the speakers emphasised that we need to be constantly thinking about how our work can add value to the organisation. Claire explained that too often comms teams can be seen a just a press office function and that’s actually becoming less and less of the day job.

There’s now so much value that we can actually add in terms of patient experience, behaviour change, reputation management, organisational efficiency as well as engagement  with staff, patients, partners, commissioners and the wider community.

As Claire says: “Our sole purpose should be to add value and if you don’t feel like you are you should be asking why.”

Changing perceptions & doing our own PR

As professionals we all need to take responsibility to shift the perceptions around what we really do and the organisational view that goes along with that in many places.

The real world is constantly changing but the expectations of what we do can be very static in the minds of people at the top of an organisation. Claire made a good point about jumping straight into tactics without doing the proper strategic homework and having the proper data, research and clearly defined plan.

Part of this seems to be a common theme across all public sector comms which I like to call the ‘get me a leaflet’ paradox, sometimes known as the ‘get me a press release paradox’, where you are forced to give important people what they want, without actually addressing the real issue in any meaningful way.

This reminded me of something Dan Slee wrote the other week about trying to educate the client which you can see here. https://danslee.wordpress.com/2017/07/24/apple-reminder-johnny-ives-and-what-they-want-not-what-they-need/

Objective, strategy, tactics

There’s a huge value in explicitly knowing and understanding our markets because there’s now so much white noise and distraction that it’s impossible for generic campaigns to cut through.

One of the biggest problems facing teams is that leadership of organisations think their comms is rubbish. Often that isn’t the case in reality but the perception problem is there because there’s no professional lead at the right level, or there isn’t enough profile of the work that’s going on.

A Changing role

“We shouldn’t be ashamed of what we do and we need to challenge our own organisations about the value we can add with good communications and engagement.

“As communications we’re independent from service delivery so we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge issues or champion improvements to patient care where they are needed.”

Be business-like and talk the language of the boardroom and be willing to demonstrate how good communications has the potential to achieve strong financial benefits.

Change communications are hard

The one thing I learned from the speakers from Cumbria is that communicating service change is incredibly difficult, especially when it comes to much loved services provided by the NHS.  People can sometimes cling to the traditional way of doing things even if this is outdated and as the trio explained – people prefer a poor service to no service.

It’s important to start any comms process with your own staff, establish trust and credibility while ensuring that all messaging is joined up.  One of the clearest messages was that we’re stronger together and for anything to be successful we need to more closely as a system and a profession.

  • The event was organised by NHS Improvement and NHS England as part of the wider communications development programme. This session focused on developing strategy that that delivers organisational objectives. They have some invaluable development opportunities available this year. See here for more: https://improvement.nhs.uk/resources/communications-development-programme/


3 thoughts on “5 lessons on NHS comms strategy

  1. A really useful insight into what sounds like a fantastic event and it’s about time the London bubble was broken it isn’t the only place to hold an event!


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