THE VALUE PR BRINGS TO AN ORGANISATION AND THE WEAKNESSES PRACTITIONERS NEED TO ADDRESS Matthew Hopkins
Many organisations fail to look beyond the fire-fighting capability of PR and in doing so fail to maximise the true value of meaningful conversations that can help to drive improvement.
• What the C-Suite look for from their PR team, including honesty and objectivity
• How internal communications can help employees feel valued and respected
• Why CEOs need to communicate strongly, consistently and in a human way
As the Chief Executive of a hospital trust that serves over one million local people, it’s easy for me to see the value that great public relations can bring to my business. Recently, one of my consultant colorectal surgeons tweeted that our communications director is the person who helps us shout the loudest when we do well and reflect when we don’t.
So for a CEO what value can PR bring? And how can practitioners overcome their weaknesses to demonstrate the real value they can add?
In my experience there are three main areas:
1. The first is the internal value of PR. People are the lifeblood of every organisation and it is widely recognised that happy staff equal happy patients. Great communication teams impact on the hard metrics of employee engagement.
2. The second is the external value of PR. The NHS is a people business, great communication teams help build relationships with people and help organisations understand the environment in which they operate.
3. The third is the personal value that PR can bring – to me as a CEO and to my broader leadership team.
The internal value of PR…
The organisation’s smile
When I arrived at my organisation two and half years ago we were inundated with negative media, despite the fact that across our hospitals we had some outstanding teams doing fabulous work.
My communications director asked one of our business unit directors why he wasn’t shouting about his achievements in stroke care (that placed his team amongst the best in the country) and he said: “It’s a bit like bragging about your kitchen when your house is falling down.”
Communications can add real value in helping teams to have confidence about their achievements. They can also help create an environment where people are proud to talk about success and inspire others to want to learn and improve.
Also through changing the language and tone of how we talk to each other, great communications can help bring back the fun and creativity that drives innovation and that helps us to get out of bed in the morning and want to come to work and do a great job. I’m delighted that in our recent staff survey our frontline teams were in the top 20 per cent most motivated teams in the NHS.
The golden thread
We’ve all heard the story of John F. Kennedy and his visit to NASA, where he asked the janitor what his job was and he replied by saying, “Sir, it’s to help put man on the moon.”
Great communications teams help to set, develop, inform and evolve the organisation’s strategy and narrative. For me it’s about helping our frontline teams to strive towards providing great care to every patient, every day. Through great internal communications, we can help people understand what their individual contribution is to realising this vision and ensure they feel respected and valued.
The ear to the ground
My communications team have a microwave in their office, a strange place for a microwave I’ve often thought. Until I realised that the microwave oven is our version of the water cooler (often found in American offices) around which workers congregate and chat. The microwave oven is the place where people gossip about what’s really bothering them. Great communications teams listen more than they message. They make sure that the staff voice is heard by me as CEO and play it into discussions with the executive team.
The external value of PR…
Being the grit in the oyster
From time to time, we all have a great idea developed in the confines of our offices. However, what happens when that idea sees the light of day? Great PR teams are the grit in the oyster and are often the ones around the board table who are bold enough to objectively and sensibly set out how the idea might play out, which can often lead to a completely different course of action.
There are 11 people on a football pitch, but from time to time you need to rely on a first class goalkeeper. In every organisation we make mistakes and we get things wrong. Great communications teams help to ensure we deal with these cases openly, they often balance the advice of legal teams and help ensure we act at pace, with empathy and humility.
The drum-beat and rhythm
Maintaining a regular rhythm of communication with key people and organisations whether formally or informally helps me to run our hospitals more effectively. It’s important that external scrutiny for organisations like mine is seen as a positive intervention.
A regular rhythm of external communication helps me to listen to concerns and ideas for improvement. I can then prioritise what’s important to the populations that we serve – great PROs bring the outside in.
The personal value of PR for me as CEO…
Truth to power
In my journey from a frontline cancer nurse to CEO, I have increasingly valued colleagues that act and speak with integrity. I can only be the best that I can be if people are honest with me and tell me what people really think rather than what they think I might want to hear. This can sometimes be tough – but great PR teams speak truth to power and give an honest, objective view of what people say and think, and if I still don’t listen they facilitate conversations and forums so that I can hear directly what is on people’s minds.
We’re all individual, and I think it’s important for the leader of any organisation to be human and to have a communication style that is in-keeping with who they are. My communications team helps me to do that and supports me with setting the language and tone that reflects my personality and the style that I want to convey as CEO. Essentially they help the people who work for me and my patients understand me, my values and what I’m passionate about.
I have a big job across several sites and a diverse geography. Great PR teams can help to promote visibility of me as CEO, as well as my broader leadership team. Through great communication channels they can help to amplify messages and communication across a huge area adding immense value to the broader leadership team.
So what weaknesses do PR practitioners need to address? Here’s my top ten:
1. Being too risk averse – I sometimes observe organisations, especially in the NHS, not having the conversations publicly that they need to because they are too focused on reputation management rather than driving improvement. We need to move beyond that fear and have the conversations that count.
2. Closed shop – when I arrived at our hospitals over two years ago, we had a closed door mentality. We have since moved away from operating our organisation like an island and PR teams are key in helping to facilitate engagement beyond an organisation’s boundaries.
3. Managing the noise down – we need PR teams to help make sure the noise is heard to help our organisations grow and improve. Practitioners need to support organisations to be more open and transparent.
4. Impersonal – we are human, we run organisations that are made up of people, who serve people. Practitioners should do more to influence legal teams to humanise language, support leaders to act with empathy and should ban the phrase ‘a spokesperson said…’
5. Reactive – this is an obvious one. Practitioners need to get out there and take advantage of the opportunities; don’t wait for these to come to you.
6. Beyond the CEO – Practitioners need to do much more to position the importance of communication not just to the CEO but to the wider executive team and Board.
7. Bottleneck – far too often in my career, communication opportunities have been missed because of the desire to get things cleared by committee. PR practitioners need to help organisational leaders be better communicators for themselves rather than becoming the bottle neck and the communication police that stop great conversations from happening.
8. Language of rebuttal – language and tone is so important, PR practitioners have a key role in shaping an organisation’s voice and a preference for rebuttal can sometimes work against an organisation’s ambitions.
9. Silo focus – PR practitioners can sometimes be too focused on their own organisation rather than ‘mutual benefit’ or understanding the interests of key partners and stakeholders.
10. One trick pony – in a world of multiple communication channels and a fragmented media, the traditional journalism focus of some PR teams on print media no longer cuts it for me as a CEO. The best communicators are those who are able to integrate a great campaign across multiple channels – reaching all kinds of audiences.
As a CEO the professional definition of public relations needs to evolve and move on from just the discipline that looks after reputation for the purpose of influencing opinion and behaviour - to the discipline that facilitates the conversations that need to be had to drive and improve an organisation’s strategy and success.
In summary communications leaders should take control, not of the message but of the leadership role that they have in organisations, not just the tactical delivery of the PR outputs, but the role that they have in building relationships and facilitating powerful conversations – this is the true value of PR!
Matthew Hopkins is Chief Executive of Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, one of the largest acute Trusts in the country with a turnover of over £500m and 6,500 staff and volunteers. He started his NHS career as a nurse, and has moved through the NHS operational ranks to become a successful CEO. For the last two years he has also been listed in the Evening Standard list of top 1,000 Londoners.