A creative approach to audience engagement: The story of the NHS Christmas number one

By Joe Blunden

It is not every day that someone makes a strategic decision to get the NHS to the top of the music charts, but in September 2015 it made perfect sense. At that time, staff morale was particularly low and with winter on the horizon, something had to be done.

You’ll learn:

• How it can pay to think big
• Why big does not have to be complicated
• How your contacts can become valuable team members

Never let them get you down

When it comes to public relations, there is rarely a definitively correct course of action. 

No amount of experience, education or downright brilliance can guarantee the right call every time, which means all plans and strategies are open to some degree of scrutiny. 

Is that the right approach? Will it work? What will happen if it goes wrong?

When I chose to take on Simon Cowell in the battle for Christmas number one, I faced all of those questions and more. Big and creative ideas usually are challenged most vigorously. 

This questioning can sometimes have an unfortunate bi-product. As creative as our industry can be, it can also be paralysed by fear of criticism and failure, particularly in the NHS. 

That is not without good reason of course; the NHS is the most cherished brand in the UK and anything that could undermine that should be scrutinised. 

But that does not mean we should be unambitious, tedious or lacklustre by default, especially when something transformational is required. 

In the winter of 2015, we saw the need for something big; something that could disrupt the traditional narrative and effect real change. 

Our overriding ambition was to improve the morale of staff and we aimed to do that by providing incontrovertible evidence that the public loved and appreciated them. What could be clearer proof than a Christmas number one?

Working towards clear goals

Sometimes we can be inclined to believe that big ambitions should be underpinned by complicated plans. But more often than not simplicity can be the most effective route.

Our strategy was very straightforward. Born as much out of necessity as it was design - we had no budget whatsoever and were acutely aware that we could generate relatively little impact on our own - we needed assistance to make this work. 

As a result, our plan from the beginning was simply to build relationships with as many people as possible and enable them to become part of the campaign. We knew that those who had a genuine connection to our cause would be more likely to take the step of downloading.

So, we immediately started building communities via social media; communities of people who had a reason to be grateful for the NHS. 

Unsurprisingly, we were not short of potential members and within two weeks over 100,000 people had completed our first simple call to action: join our team.

What followed over the next eight weeks was a series of equally small yet impactful requests for activity, such as ‘invite others to join’ or ‘share why you love the NHS’. With each passing request, compliance increased, as our relationship with them grew gradually stronger. 

These calls to action were complemented by a stream of supporting messages designed to increase awareness of the cause and aid acquiescence. 

Simplicity and clarity were vital to these, so we always used uncomplicated language, never shared more than two key points at once and repeated things regularly.

It was sometimes tempting to deviate from this ethos and try to communicate everything at once, or to skip straight to the ‘download now’ moment without really engaging. But I have rarely seen that approach work effectively, particularly when trying to influence thought or change behaviour. 

Instead, it was our regular, subtle stream of information and calls to action that were the key to our success. They at once provided invaluable engagement whilst perpetuating our key messages, ultimately enabling thousands of people to feel a part of something. 

This sense of belonging meant that when the request to download eventually came they were primed to take action, culminating in 150,000 downloads and £300,000 for charity.

Utilising our networks

Despite the simplicity of our plans, we knew it would be difficult to achieve everything we wanted to with our original team of just three. Consequently, we quickly turned to our existing networks to create a wider group with the skills required. 

We built up a selection of 40 trusted volunteers, made up of NHS staff, patients and campaigners. They all had a contribution to make, although the vast majority were obviously not trained in PR. 

I think communications professionals are often nervous about allowing untrained people to step into our world, but their ability to reach diverse audiences and provide real peer-to-peer engagement whilst offering a different perspective can be invaluable in healthcare. 

In addition, we used our connections to recruit professional support. 

There can often be a temptation, particularly in the world of NHS communications, to take on tasks ourselves wherever possible. We have all picked up an SLR camera, put together a poster using Publisher, or recorded a video on an iPhone. Of course, there is a very good reason for this; NHS communications teams have an ever-dwindling pot of resources. However, it is equally important to recognise when an expert will yield the greatest results.

That is not to say that we left most of the leg-work to others: we created much of the content ourselves, built our website using an online content management system and even designed our own branding. Yet we also recognised that in certain areas our strategy necessitated specialist input to generate credibility, maintain professionalism and ultimately get results. 

Therefore, we recruited a music PR agency to help us generate radio and TV coverage. 

This agency secured us an extended slot on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show, during which we climbed to the top of the charts. We also worked with a production company, who created a really impactful music video to compel people to download the single: it was viewed over 5 million times.

The fact that these companies kindly offered their services on a voluntary basis does not negate the fact that they would have represented outstanding value at full price. I am a firm believer that we should not be afraid to invest in marketing and communications activity if it can be clearly linked to the achievement of core goals.

Evaluating success

On paper our campaign was a huge success and the Christmas number one has gone down in history. 

In achieving it, we generated over 3,000 pieces of media coverage, nearly 100 million impressions on social media and lots more besides. 

We even convinced Justin Bieber, our biggest competitor, to support us.

But to judge our campaign on these elements alone would be misleading, because that was not our primary aim. Indeed, I see this approach to evaluation regularly: people judge success on the volume of coverage they receive, how many followers they have on Facebook, or any other number of irrelevant analytics, regardless of whether or not it actually led to a change in behaviour.

Ultimately, we wanted to improve the morale of staff and no number of shares or video views can prove that. Fortunately, we have received a huge amount of anecdotal evidence to suggest the campaign did have the desired impact on staff and there is not 1.6 million people who deserve it more.


Joe Blunden is a multi-award winning communicator and marketer with over 15 years of experience across a range of industries. Currently the Deputy Director of Marketing at NHS Elect, he provides communication, marketing and branding support to over 65 NHS Trusts and clinical networks across the UK. Joe previously spent 5 years as the marketing and stakeholder engagement lead at Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, working in both acute and community settings. He has a Professional Diploma in Marketing from the Chartered Institute of Marketing and a Diploma in Managing Digital Media, in addition to a degree in business.

Twitter: @NHSCommsJoe
Online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8qHXlShfUQ