In the week that we heard the current task facing the NHS was rated as mission impossible by a new report, it was reassuring to see the positive impact that good communications can have during increasingly challenging times.
By Ross Wigham
In the same NHS Providers report they also argue that what the heath service needs now is greater realism, flexibility and support – luckily the AHCM conference provided a large dose of all three.
As we sit at the top of what is being called the ‘funding u-bend’, it’s time to consider how we can react as communicators to the rising demand and falling levels of funding across all our organisations.
This comes at a time of huge change for the NHS, just when robust communications and engagement are needed the most. Add to this the fact that the NHS expects to see corporate services like ours contribute up to £400m worth of savings in the next three years and it would be easy to feel pretty bleak.
Listening to the speakers at the Association for Healthcare Communications and marketing (AHCM) conference offered a real antidote to some of the gloom and also provided some practical, take home advice on a range of useful subjects.
The chance to meet colleagues from around the country and listen to some genuinely first rate speakers provided some excellent context to think about the huge changes taking place across the NHS and how strong communications can support this.
The importance of planning
One workshop highlighted some excellent examples of how detailed planning tools can inspire the best public campaigns, but also help weed out some of those that probably aren’t worth pursuing.
The key message was a powerful one – don’t jump straight into tactics. A planning model will enable you to think things through properly.
The OASIS model forces you to think how your work adds value and achieves business objectives. However, it’s also useful for prioritising work internally as we’re all bombarded with requests for more and more output.
A standout quote from the workshop was: “We need to be honest enough to say sometimes comms isn’t the right tool to achieve your aims. It’s not a panacea to every problem.”
Find out more here: https://gcs.civilservice.gov.uk/guidance/campaigns/guide-to-campaign-planning-2/
In this digital first era Victoria Macdonald, the Channel 4 health and social care correspondent, showed us just how powerful traditional media still is for the NHS.
Her reports during the winter showed how TV news is often the perfect forum for delivering key messages to a huge audience, in this case ‘don’t come to A&E unless it’s an emergency’.
She went on to say that her job would be impossible to do properly without the hospital comms teams, highlighting the importance of both trust and strong networks.
One useful piece of advice was to ensure staff are comfortable with the work you sell in to the media. Sometimes no is better than yes if the front line staff don’t want to do it, she explained.
As more services and care moves into the community we need to reset our own efforts (and media perception) to reflect that. One delegate said that despite 70% of care taking place outside hospital it’s still very difficult to get coverage of this.
The new normal of health funding
As a former local government head of comms I do start shifting nervously when I hear phrases like burning platform, new normal or paradigm shift – not just because it sounds like something from W1A, but because I’ve been at the start of this road before.
While it’s uncomfortable for PR and comms the key is to adapt, or as Roy Lilley put it “introduce some main entrance thinking”. The current funding path will fundamentally change the NHS so some new, innovative thinking will be the key to making it work at a local level.
He warned that recruitment will be a key problem in future citing a worrying 90 percent drop in applications from staff that traditionally come from abroad. This is an area that will increasingly need more communications support as we all continue to fish from the same pool for a limited supply of clinical staff.
He also said the sector needs to get much better at communicating with its own staff so they can become ‘disciples for local services’.
He urged better transparency and more genuine engagement with communities, saying that he’d never known a time in his 40 years in the NHS when there has been so much pressure on communications people.
One of the biggest life lessons from this session was be careful what you are photographed in front of and NEVER leave a Roy Lilley session early (You had to be there).
The reality of the finances mean that things are going to get tougher, teams are going to get smaller and budgets are going to shrink, but against that backdrop the importance of communications has never been more vital.