By Louise Thompson
Scratch the surface of any inspirational NHS leader and great communication is at the heart of their approach.
Given this, why is the NHS still such a challenging environment for communications professionals when it comes to flourishing at board level?
If we are to successfully position communications and engagement skills as crucial to management teams, we must look beyond our traditional portfolio remit. This is where the inherent flexibility, evolving skill set and innovative approach that we communicators possess as standard is of benefit. Proving our leadership, ethical and strategic abilities offers the opportunity to make a real difference to NHS staff and to our patients and communities.
• What ‘super powers’ communications professionals possess that make them ideally placed to offer greater strategic value within the NHS
• How those skills can help bridge the gap between the NHS and the local communities we serve, bringing the NHS values to life for local residents
• How communications professionals in the NHS can have a transformational impact on workforce and organisational development issues, such as recruitment, retention and staff wellbeing
Communications professionals can’t afford to be passengers
I am just three years into my NHS journey and much of my prior experience has come from working with technology start-ups, where virtual reality and artificial intelligence are the norm. But although you may think the UK health service and Silicon Valley are poles apart, there are some valuable lessons I learned during my time in this sector that have shaped the strategic value I believe communications professionals can offer within the NHS.
In the start-up world, in order to sell, you have to be able to tell. Good communications and story telling are at the heart of every successful company. But these skills aren’t just limited to working with the media - they are a vital bridge to building company culture and enabling workforce engagement.
In many start-ups, the organisational structure is fairly flat and there’s no room for passengers, so every employee has to make their contribution count. This is not just in the traditional portfolio they were originally hired for, but across the board. You take on new areas of responsibility that may be a fit for you and you learn with the job. Or you don’t have a job for much longer.
We must do more of this as communications professionals in the NHS. Whilst the governance models are understandably more complex, there is still plenty of scope for us to put our hand up and take on some portfolio areas that make sense for us, given our skills and aptitude, but that are beyond what may be offered to us today.
This is essential if we want to continue building the case for board level roles and responsibilities within communications.
Honing your communications ‘super powers’ to prepare for a broader role
What are the skills that communications professionals possess that make us fit for broader board responsibility in the future? Here are three that I think make us stand out.
• We can see around corners
Our ability to anticipate, prepare and plan means we can not only manage crises when they arrive, but we can often help prevent them altogether, proving our operational and strategic worth. This is vital when working in the fields of transformational change where every day brings another curveball and the only constant is change itself.
• We can ‘speak human’
The NHS is chock-full of compassionate, caring people. But all too often that can be hidden beneath the layers of jargon we insist on adding to very simple messages. The very best communications professionals understand that simple isn’t dumbed down - it requires much more skill to deliver a message in a way that anyone can understand and then act upon. This is supremely helpful when considering adding community relations or workforce activities into your portfolio mix.
• We start with ‘why’
It can sometimes be a lonely place as a senior communications professional. We are hard-wired to ask ‘why’ as the starting point for any organisational project, as we are adept at predicting the consequences if strategy or decision making isn’t robust enough. Sometimes, that can mean feeling a little out on a limb, but it is precisely this sense of constructive interrogation that enables us to build narratives that make sense for the organisation and communities we serve, even as that narrative evolves. This, more than ever, is what will be needed as the NHS navigates the transformational change required of it over the coming years.
If we are to move forward confidently, holding real strategic value within the NHS, then we must look at where and how we can best deploy our unique strengths and skills within a broader portfolio. Here are two ideas.
Connecting with your community - beyond the walls of your organisation
Community relations. Corporate social responsibility. These terms can sometimes feel a bit dry. And although laudable in terms of purpose, these activities can often wither on the vine if not placed in more innovative and forward-thinking hands.
Communications professionals are just the people to take up the mantle for community partnerships and engagement within the NHS, connecting with our strategy leads and working together to create real value ‘beyond the walls of our hospitals’ and deep within our local communities.
This is in many ways a natural extension of our engagement remit, but with service transformation and redesign so high on the NHS priorities list, there is a real opportunity now for communications professionals to grab this agenda and really make it count. We need to do this within a robust, outcomes-focused framework, linked with strategy, transformation and operational ‘grit’ that can have a tangible impact on patient outcomes and public health.
Within my local community a member of my team, alongside transformation and clinical colleagues, is working in close partnership with a local homeless charity to offer basic health checks out in the community, as well as give advice on securing GP care for those that are without a place to call home. A pilot project at the moment, there is a will to make this work at scale, which would not only start to improve population health, but could also help reduce local pressures on our busiest emergency departments.
What started initially as community relations in the traditional sense (fundraising support offered by our hospital staff to the charity), is evolving into something deeper and more patient-centred. We started with the ‘why’ and linked this work back to core strategic objectives, then used specific skills in communications and engagement (including encouraging our transformation and clinical colleagues to come on board), as well as engagement on a very human level with the local people the charity supports.
Transforming the NHS outlook on workforce and workplace issues
This is a biggie. One of the most useful attributes NHS communications professionals have is our ability to grasp the bigger picture - we have to juggle it all the time when talking with the media about anything from waiting time targets to Christmas babies, to service redesign and car park woes.
There’s generally nothing we don’t know about the inner workings of our organisation, or about how the public feels when we get it right, as well as when we get it wrong.
This perspective is incredibly valuable when considering workplace and workforce issues and when combined with our natural inclination towards innovation, our engagement skills and our ability to ‘speak human’, we can have a real impact.
Think about the potential when there is a true partnership between Communications and Organisational Development/Workforce Transformation. Here are a few examples:
• Staff health and well-being
By partnering with a fitness tracker company, my team launched a series of simple yet effective fitness challenges for staff within our organisation. These activities led to expected positive outcomes for our people (improvement in fitness levels, sleep quality etc) but also some surprising ones, such as forming new bonds at work due to the group activities and lasting behavioural changes such as parking further away from work in order to walk a bit further. It made complete sense for the communications team to develop and launch this (including liaison with the tracker company to get the partnership off the ground), as staff engagement was paramount. We needed to ensure all staff understood why we were doing this, how they could get involved and what the benefits would be. We were also able to map the results back to organisational workforce priorities such as reducing staff sickness and improving morale, which was an important part of the discussion at board level.
• Recruitment and retention
These areas really benefit from deep cross-portfolio working and it’s essential that communicators get involved as a core part of the strategic offer around these issues, not just in the ‘bit at the end where we need a poster/video’. Again, our ability to start with ‘why’ and work back from there to a meaningful set of priorities and objectives, is invaluable to this essential and difficult work. Not to mention the benefits our innovative and creative approach can deliver. There is a clear opportunity for communicators to step up and lead these initiatives on a cross-portfolio basis, as critical yet supportive friends to our HR colleagues, leading to enhanced outcomes.
Use your super powers for good in your organisation
By at first recognising and then marshalling our specific talents, skills and super powers, we can lend real strategic oomph around the NHS Board table.
We can use our deep empathy and understanding of human behaviour to connect the corporate strategy with a narrative that speaks to people’s needs and wants, in terms they understand and can connect with.
We can peer around corners and offer advice and strategies for the plethora of transformational change projects that are now a feature of our NHS.
And we can keep starting with ‘why’, in order to make sure that our priorities are the right ones for the people and communities we serve, including our valued staff.
By looking beyond our traditional remit, we can offer so much more to the NHS as it navigates its future.
Louise Thompson is the Director of Communications at Burton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. She joined the NHS in 2015 following an extensive career in the private sector, advising companies on corporate and consumer communications strategies both in the UK and internationally. Her current portfolio includes communications, stakeholder relations, staff engagement and community partnerships.