Real results: The role of Communications in achieving organisational outcomes

By Kerry Barron-Beadling

Demonstrating real results from the efforts of communications has long been the holy grail of the public sector. There is plenty of data supporting clinical work such as the number of referrals, complaints letters, friends and family scores etc. But as a NHS communicator how do we demonstrate the link between our campaigns and the frontline?

You’ll learn:

• Why it’s OK that you cannot prove beyond a doubt that your work was the only factor that resulted in change – and what the one thing is you should be focusing on
• How the data you need is already out there waiting for you
• How this has already been used on two of the big issues facing the acute sector today

How can we prove what difference our actions have made as communicators?

I’ve spent over a decade in NHS communications and in my experience this has been the question that has caused the most consternation.

How do we best show the value of what we do? 

Previously the much maligned AVE was held up. At its best AVE allowed teams to produce impressive looking stats, even if they were irrelevant. Irrespective of that, AVE could not show any sort of result for internal campaigns anyway. Elsewhere good old GF was used: Gut Feel.

In a profession struggling to demonstrate its value, neither of these support our values. For too long, we have struggled because we’ve searched desperately for causation of our actions – actions that could have only related to the campaign or tactics used. 

While that may work in the private sector (where sales act as the direct result of a marketing campaign), in the public sector we don’t have definitive sales metrics to reinforce our work. 

For too long, as we couldn’t prove causation, we stuck to outputs. But there is a third way I would like to discuss: correlation.

A well planned campaign with clear objectives linked to an organisation’s strategic priorities should always be able to demonstrate a level of correlation, whether that is weak or strong.

Working on a familiar front door problem

In a previous role in an acute Trust we struggled with the usual winter pressures and would regularly get the call to put a message out on social media to ask people to use their NHS services wisely. This, it was hoped, would decrease the amount of people coming to A&E unnecessarily.

In January 2017, having seen the increased reach of video on social media sites, the communications team decided to use a video of one of our Emergency Department clinicians asking people to use services wisely, rather than a text-based message. The key messages though were the same.

The video was posed on Facebook on the Trust official page on 4 January 2017. The outputs were impressive – it became the Trust’s most popular post ever with a reach of 149k, 70.3k views, 188 reactions on the post, 1,311 shares and 84 comments on the post itself (200 on shares). 

But did it actually reduce the amount of attendances coming through the front door?

Based on Trust data, on Thursday 5 January 2017, the day after the video was posted, there was a 12.4% decrease in A&E attendances from 4 January 2017. 

As a comparator, between the first Wednesday and Thursday in January 2016 there was a 1.9% increase in attendances. This was data that was already being routinely collected at the Trust. 

Now was this down purely to the video? It’s difficult to say 100%, particularly given that other organisations were giving out similar messages at the same time. However given the size of the reach and the 14.3% difference year-on-year I believe it is possible to show a correlation between the two which demonstrates that the video message did have a short-term (24 hour) effect on reducing the number of attendances at A&E.

How do you recruit from a reducing pool?

Before I started at Sherwood Forest Hospitals, it was highlighted that the largest staff group with vacancies was Band 5 nurses – again a common issue across the acute sector.

Insight work was carried out with recent starters, recently qualified nurses and those who had worked for the Trust for less than one year. 

Staff were asked about where they saw the roles advertised, where they looked for roles, what they looked for in the roles and their perceptions of the Trust. The survey also looked at staff retention and why staff were leaving the Trust. 

With this information, a campaign was developed, which focused on Sherwood Forest Hospitals being a forward thinking, innovative Trust with a friendly and supportive environment that is easy to get to. 

The language used in both adverts and communications relating to jobs was revised using phrases from nurses in the insight results. It was also decided to use social media because the insight work showed that apart from the Trust website and NHS Jobs, social media is where most nurses look for and learn about new opportunities. 

It launched in April 2017 and within the first month, the campaign reached an online audience of 30,939. 

The first two recruitment days resulted in 29 registered nurses being recruited and more than 200 nurses (both internal and external) signing up to the Trust’s internal rota system, known as ‘bank’. The launch of the nursing recruitment campaign was also featured on ITV which reaches 5.5 million adults on a weekly basis.

In terms of outcomes, there was an increase in applications to nursing positions across the organisation, with both recruitment days seeing a 100% employment success rate. 

Overall nursing vacancies reduced from 22% in 2016 to 15.8% and in the first two months of 2017/18 nursing agency spend was £935,000 (representing a potential annual total of £5.6m and therefore a potential £2.8m saving). 

There was also a £97,000 reduction in nurse agency spend in one month from March 2017 to April 2017. We now have more substantive nurses working for us compared to 12 months ago and are one of few acute Trusts to do so. 

This is a clear correlation between this well thought out campaign, the increased substantive nurses in post and reduced spend on agency nurses. And again all the information needed to prove this was already held in the Trust.

It’s OK to correlate

Both these campaigns won awards. It goes to show that no campaign is ever going to be perfect or run in lab-like conditions. Proving causation is always going to be problematic, as it proves problematic for most. 

However a well-planned campaign should always be able to prove a correlation between our outputs, outcomes and then link to strategic priorities. 

If you feel unable to do this, you need to ask yourself: 1) were the objectives the right objectives? And 2) did you measure the right things? 

And 3) if you couldn’t measure the value, why did you do it?


Kerry Barron-Beadling started her working life as a reporter on local newspapers before jumping into NHS comms more than 10 years ago. She’s always worked in the hospital sector covering small district general hospitals, big teaching acute Trusts and is currently Head of Communications at Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, an award-winning organisation covering three sites in Nottinghamshire and a community of 400,000. She is passionate about promoting the strategic importance of communications and is one of the few Heads of Communications in the acute sector to be a member of her Trust’s executive team and Board of Directors.

Twitter: @KBeadlingBarron