Thoughts from NHS Communicate

At this stage of the pandemic it’s tempting to feel a bit like Bob from the likely lads when he worried that “In the chocolate box of life the top layer’s already gone. And someone’s pinched the orange crème from the bottom.”

But for NHS communicators there was some respite last week as we gathered virtually to share some of the lessons of the last 18 months and consider some of the future challenges.

Massive thanks to NHS Providers and Confed for organising as well as all the speakers for their insight. Here’s some of the things that struck me as important:

Working together

The crisis has demonstrated the huge importance of good comms in an almost life or death way and people working in the public sector have been tested like never before.

Joint working and collaboration were key themes with the pandemic response demonstrating how we can maximise value and increase impact by coming together as a range of organisations.

The work many people did jointly helped cut through organisational boundaries and build relationships with diverse groups of people in a fast-changing world.

This approach is not assured as we move out of the crisis and to sustain it there needs to be much focus on building relationships across multiple partners. There also needs to be a talent pipeline and much more support for comms people including our leaders.

Looking within

Internal comms is now more important than ever. Consistent, clear messages during a time of crisis have been vital, especially in the NHS. Some suggest that the pandemic has perhaps fundamentally changed that relationship we have with employees.

Need to remember that staff are also the public and get their own information, confidence and fears from a range of news sources, not just the things that are released officially by their employer.

National and local

A crisis of this magnitude requires a coordinated, national approach but that shouldn’t be at the expense of localised messages delivered by trusted spokespeople.

As comms people we need to be really clear about who are the trusted spokespeople in our organisations and communities.

We need to be getting that balance right between national and local so that messages can chime with the right audiences.

During the debate someone asked the question “Do people trust the government more or less than at the start of the pandemic?”

I won’t attempt to answer that one but I do think trust is becoming a shrinking commodity in our work. Take a look at the latest Edelman trust barometer to learn more about who the public will listen to.


Comms needs to be able to bring together data, judgement and good advice to be effective at the top table. There needs to be a new push on evaluation and our ability to use data to demonstrate value.

Professionals also need to be clear exactly where comms can have an impact or the most influence (and at times where it cannot)

There’s now a range of new challenges to face on top of the pandemic including service recovery, the treatment backlog, health inequalities, a burned-out workforce and the reorganisation of clinical commissioning.

Resilience and burnout

The industry needs to get serious about tackling mental health and move beyond just platitudes. That means doing something tangible for comms people working under huge levels of pressure and stress. The massive rise in workload and hours has increased exponentially during the pandemic. This doesn’t come free for people’s health and this is now a profession under pressure.

Paradoxical polling and focus groups

People say they support the NHS and are happy to clap once a week but seem opposed to the fiscal commitments needed to pay for it.

The latest polling highlights massive high-level support for the NHS on the surface, but cracks are starting to emerge.

In the perception research people were starting to challenge the idea of ‘covid being used an excuse’ for a lack of services, poor services, long delays or no access to appointments.

Polling suggests that virtual appointments will be a tough sell to the public, especially at a time when more money is going into the system.

The NHS also still seems to be missing young people as an audience for health communications.

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