Planning and insight: winter in the NHS – using data and insight to own the narrative and change the script

By Liz Davies

One of the big challenges faced by NHS communicators continues to be persistent media narratives which focus on what is wrong with patient care, instead of the proactive work being carried out to address systemic issues.

You’ll learn:

• Why data needs to be integral to daily public relations practice
• Five lessons for changing a persistent media narrative
• How planning at scale can yield the greatest results but requires collaboration

Winter in the NHS

Winter is always a testing time for the NHS. Cold weather, seasonal bugs and an ageing population inevitably means more people get sick and more pressure on the health service. 

You’d be forgiven for thinking every year that the system is about to crumble under the strain and seriously, who could blame you? If I didn’t work in the NHS, I’d probably believe the hype and hysteria too. 

Don’t get me wrong, the pressures are very real and they are growing. What must change, however, is the relentless and perpetual cycle of negativity in the media every year when winter arrives. 

So how can we gain control of the message and change the story? As professional communicators, using data and insight from our customers and staff should be at the very core of our strategic planning to help influence such change. Here are my top five lessons for making this happen.

1. What do we already know?

The NHS, like many other big organisations, is data rich with an abundance of information that often goes untapped by strategic communicators. We know the peaks in demand, right down to the exact hours and days when services are at their busiest, yet we still do not use this to maximum impact. 

Did you know, for example, that hospital emergency departments see more people during summer? I suspect the answer is no.

Only by looking in detail at what our data is telling us, will we ever be able to switch from reacting to the annual media onslaught during winter, to really getting on the front foot with a compelling story - a story which connects with our audiences and influences behaviour change all year round.

As daily workflow becomes more automated, access to timely data is becoming easier, but this must become routine and entwined in our everyday business if we are to truly use data to strategically plan. 

2. Strength in numbers and system planning

A fundamental principle underpinning my practice in the NHS is to constantly think beyond my own organisation and to work with key partners to plan together. We are, after all, one NHS and what use is data and insight from one hospital or GP practice without understanding the bigger picture?

System planning at scale is absolutely critical to understand what our data is telling us and must become the norm if we are ever to truly change the narrative about winter in the NHS. Speaking with one collective voice disseminates key messages in a much more powerful way and this also means pooling budgets for maximum impact.

Of course, this comes down to strong relationships and trust, not only between professional communicators but being able to wield influence in the boardroom when it comes to resource planning and funding allocations. 

Too often in the NHS I have seen individual organisational agendas and political interferences get in the way of essentially doing what is right for patient care. Our strength in the North East has always been our ability to overcome such barriers. 

3. Own the narrative

In the NHS, we repeatedly let other people, often key national and local influencers, do the talking about us and rarely do we use our own data and insights to control the strategic narrative and engage directly with audiences. 

The politics can make this hard but, for me, the NHS still remains far too reliant on traditional media to disseminate messages and is not focussed enough on true two-way communication. An over reliance on mass media means that winter messages are focussed on what is wrong, rather than what is right.

The fact that hundreds of thousands more people are cared for every single year by our NHS is constantly overlooked. 

Over 2 million people attended emergency departments in December 2017, 3.7% more than last year. 

The numbers are staggering and there is simply no other healthcare system in the world that compares. But we must start using this data, in real-time, to focus the storytelling on the good, to motivate and inspire the amazing NHS workforce and to change the media’s fixation solely on the bad.

4. Use the service theatre

The NHS is equally guilty of failing to maximise use of its own physical environments to engage directly with captive audiences.

Walk into any John Lewis store and you will be greeted by the same corporate messaging, the same customer information and the same service experience from staff. 

The comparisons with the NHS are stark. But why? Public service is our core business so why aren’t we using our own service theatres and the people within them, in a more strategic way? 

Not only would this help us gain further insights about public behaviours during winter, but it also provides the perfect platform to playback vital pieces of information to potentially influence future decision-making. 

In South Tyneside and Sunderland hospitals last year, for example, there were over 13,000 inappropriate attendances in emergency care (over 4,500 people had a sore throat or headache). This misuse of services happens right across the NHS.

Direct face-to-face contact between patients and staff is the most powerful tool we have at our disposal and empowering our frontline teams with the information they need to educate patients on the right and wrong things to do, is arguably our best chance of changing attitudes, opinions and behaviours long-term. 

5. The job is never done

Winter in the NHS and the pressures that come with it get longer every year. The operational planning is constant. If we are honest though, how well do we do this as a collective of strategic communicators? 

There is always a sense of relief when winter is done and other competing priorities begin get a look in, but we cannot take our eyes off the ball. The data at our disposal is constantly changing and it is fundamental that we understand it and adapt our narrative accordingly. 

We must also move away from the perception that pressures on the NHS are time specific and confined to the winter months. 

They are year round and it is our role to continually engage, educate and inform our staff, stakeholders and patients alike. 

This means continually repeating consistent messages but also listening to feedback from those using our services to gain more insight into behaviours so that we can evaluate and continually refine our approach. 

Equally, if the customer experience is not living up to the message we are giving then this must be fed back to senior decision makers – this is, after all, the strategic role of PR.

In summary

My passion for the NHS runs deep and I have every faith that it will continue to outlive us all. It does, however, need to change and as PR professionals we should be using data and insight to influence this change. 

We’ve seen a seismic societal shift over many generations in the way people view, respect and use the NHS and indeed what they expect from it. Winter is just one example of where we could and should be using information to better educate our future generations to become good NHS citizens. 

Our collective approach to campaigning and joined-up thinking in the North East over several years to manage winter is making an impact and this comes down to strong leadership within the strategic communications function. 

The ability to influence the right decisions in the boardroom, even when that means going against the grain, is, without doubt, my biggest lesson of all.


Liz Davies MCIPR is Head of Communications at the South Tyneside and Sunderland Healthcare Group and oversees the strategic communications function across two of the North East’s longest standing NHS Foundation Trusts. A multi-award winning PR professional and the CIPR’s Young Communicator of the Year in 2012, her previous NHS roles include Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and the North East Strategic Health Authority. In a previous life she began her career working in agencies in Yorkshire and Newcastle.

Twitter: @LizzlyDavies