The challenges facing NHS communicators

Senior NHS communicators say their main challenges are: delivering more activity with less resource; effective engagement as part of transformation initiatives; recruiting and retaining high-quality staff; embracing new technologies; and demonstrating return on investment.

Sound familiar? This finding forms part of The State of NHS Provider Communications 2017/18 published by NHS Providers @NHSProviders today.

The report provides a snapshot of trust communications through benchmarking data, interviews with communications leaders and thought leadership on future practice.

It includes a survey of 130 communications leaders working in hospital, mental health, community and ambulance service trusts. More than half (56%) of NHS trusts in England took part.

It’s a comprehensive read and worth exploring if you are interested in how other practitioners are communicating, what their teams are like and how communication happens in their trust.

An evening for NHS Communicators
I had the pleasure of spending tonight in the company of NHS communicators as I chaired and spoke at an event hosted by #NHSComms.

If you want to know what excellent internal communication looks like, I encourage you to listen to NHS communicators talking passionately about their work.

Speakers were:

  • Alex Bass, Head of Internal Communications and Stuart Crichton, Assistant Director of Operational Service Improvement with the London Ambulance Service. They focused on the challenges and successes of their closed Facebook group, which recently won the IoIC Awards for best use of internal social media.
  • Kate Burke, Director of Corporate Affairs and Jacob Prichard, Communications Manager, from Milton Keynes University Hospitals NHS Trust. Kate and Jacob talked about their award-winning Event in the Tent, their flagship engagement event at the trust.
  • Kate Henry, Director of Marketing, Communications and Engagement, and Jude Tipper, Head of Communications and Involvement and South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation. They shared how a strategic approach to internal communication has achieved outstanding results through their wellbeing campaign #allofus.
  • Rebecca Oakley is Head of Communications at Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Foundation Trust. She talked about their ‘old school’ approach as part of the Trust communications and engagement strategy to boost morale and improve engagement with the launch of their new internal magazine.

I spoke about the need for practitioners to invest in themselves in this special 70th year of the NHS.

70 years is a platinum anniversary, so I drew comparisons between the properties of platinum in the form of challenges for communicators. You can access my slides if you’d like to see what I said: NHSComms-RachelMiller

You can also see a summary video of the event:

Thank you Antony Tiernan and Chloe Watson of NHS England, plus the team at Touch Design for their hard work putting tonight together, it was a pleasure to support you and @NHSCommsorg.

Let’s take a further look at the NHS Providers report…

The report concludes that strategic communications should be at the heart of all effective organisations, including NHS trusts.

The leadership and expertise provided by communications professionals has a vital role to play in supporting the NHS to improve the patient experience and deliver more effective engagement with local communities, staff and key stakeholders.

I couldn’t agree more and echo the finding that this report offers both hope and concern for the future of NHS trust communications. The positive aspects are the growing awareness among senior NHS leaders of the critical role strategic communications can play in enhancing the patient and public experience; ensuring trusts engage more effectively with their staff; helping to achieve desired behaviour change; and in helping to manage the communications challenge presented by STPs and the move to accountable care.

Daniel Reynolds, Director of Communications at NHS Providers says: “Good communications sits at the heart of how the NHS engages with its patients, service users, local communities, staff and other key stakeholders. When done well, it can improve the patient and public experience, as well as ensuring NHS trusts engage more effectively with their staff.

“Attitudes are changing and many NHS leaders are recognising the strategic contribution that communications and engagement can make. This has become more important given the proliferation of channels through which trusts need to stay engaged with their local communities, as well as the communications and engagement challenges presented by sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs) and the move to accountable care.”

I’m pleased to see the research will be repeated to track how communicators are adapting and responding to future challenges, which I welcome.

Other findings included:

  • The majority of senior NHS communicators working in trusts are female, white, hold an honours degree and three-quarters have been working in NHS/healthcare communications for seven years or more.There is a marked lack of ethnic diversity among those in the most senior communications roles (and clearly more needs to done to address this issue).
  • There is significant variation between trusts on the size of their communications team and where they sit within the internal hierarchy and structure. On average, trusts employ seven full-time equivalent communications staff.
  • Less than half (44%) of communications leaders report into their chief executive, while only 24% sit on their trust’s board. Despite this, most communications leaders feel they have a good working relationship with their chief executive and two-thirds feel they have parity with other senior staff.
  • As with other parts of the NHS, communications teams face budget cuts and efficiency savings as part of their contribution to cost improvement plans. Senior communicators fear this is eroding their ability to contribute most effectively to helping their trust achieve its strategic objectives.
  • Funding constraints and workload pressures are forcing some communications leaders to move towards smaller teams based on more generalist roles and fewer specialists. Many respondents said they feared this was leaving their trusts short of specialist communications expertise.
  • Communications leaders report a general shift in their priorities over the last year towards more public, staff and stakeholder engagement as trusts undertake transformation initiatives. However, eight in 10 leaders and their teams are spending less than a day a week supporting their Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STP). This is likely to represent some progress though, and many trust communicators recognise the importance of working more closely with their NHS and local government counterparts.
  • One theory as to why communicators do not always enjoy parity with other NHS professions is that, individually and collectively, the profession may not be doing enough to demonstrate strategic value. Responses to this survey reveal variation in how much time, energy and focus senior communicators are putting into this, with impact assessment often sacrificed when teams are short-staffed and over-worked.
  • Communicators are concerned that budget and capacity constraints are impeding professional development. A majority do not think there is enough training and development provided by the NHS system, though many recognise the value of recent NHS England and NHS Improvement initiatives to support development.

What happens next?

The report makes several recommendations:

  • Trusts working together on a more informal basis to share communications capacity and expertise in order to plug skills and capacity gaps and to deliver better outcomes.
  • Trust communications leaders and their local government counterparts to work together to ensure effective engagement with the public, staff and other stakeholders ahead of the much-needed changes to local services that will flow out from sustainability and transformation partnerships.
  • For a clear career structure and development pathway for NHS communicators at all levels to be developed.

I think the career structure and development pathway is a critical part of these recommendations – although they’re all important!

What do you think? Do you agree with the findings? If you’re not in the National Health Service do they echo your own experience?

As ever, you’re welcome to Tweet me @AllthingsIC or comment below.

Thank you for stopping by,


Post author: Rachel Miller.

First published on the All Things IC blog 25 January 2018.

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