Communications offers the NHS its Greatest lifeline

Editors analysis by Sarah Hall

“The NHS will last as long as there are folk with the faith to fight for it.” Nye Bevan, founder of the NHS.

#FuturePRoof edition three is a story of an NHS striving hard to modernise as it navigates through the toughest challenges of its lifetime, challenges that can only be overcome if it embraces an honest dialogue with the public.

An aging population with complex heath needs, underfunding, political agendas, privatisation, parochial self-interest, healthcare that doesn’t consistently meet quality standards and questions over the type and location of delivery, are just some of the huge questions its leaders face.

There are no easy answers.

Facing the challenges with integrity and transparency

Seventy years after it was first established, the NHS has grown beyond all expectations; a behemoth which comprises a network of organisations, occasionally with competing agendas, but all fighting with one aim: to maintain healthcare that is free at the point of treatment.

Daily life for NHS employees is a juxtaposition of medical and technological innovation within buildings and infrastructure that are in some cases no longer fit for purpose. World class frontline teams of doctors and nurses prop up a system that is creaking at the seams.

There is widespread recognition that the NHS is on a knife edge.

The greatest challenge is not where the money comes from, but how to have an honest conversation with the public about what future healthcare should be and to educate the wider population about the change that is needed and create demand for this to happen. 

Public engagement is the most powerful form of advocacy

Professional communications has never been more critical to the future of the NHS. 

Public relations in its truest sense is needed not just to speak truth to power, but to engage with NHS users who think that an injection of funds will suffice to fix the issues. The NHS will stand or fall on its relationship with the public. As public engagement is the bread and butter of what we do, the power is in our hands.

Investment alone is not the solution. A much more radical overhaul is urgently required that engages both the workforce and the public. 

Difficult conversations need to be had and decisions taken, not at the behest of politicians or NHS management teams, but following true collaboration and engagement with members of the public who must accept that the care they receive needs to revolutionise and fast. 

While the general populace may be wedded to having doctors’ surgeries and hospitals on every corner, this is not where a sustainable future lies. 

Instead, technology is already empowering online consultations and self-care within the home setting.

Non-urgent treatment is moving from hospitals into the community. Apps are providing better access to healthcare advice focused on prevention rather than cure.

This is the new reality and UK society needs to embrace this. 

So what is the role of professional communicators in the NHS?

The story of NHS communications is an evolving one. The comms role is more linked than ever to the organisation’s viability, sustainability and longevity. 

Speak to any NHS leader involved with the drive to professionalise the marketing and public relations function and they will tell the tale of an up and down journey of quick fixes, pockets of mediocrity and a mixed bag of talent. 

They will equally laud the communications excellence within its teams today, particularly those demonstrably showcasing best practice and trailblazing the way digitally, as evidenced by this book.

Fall out from the mass recruitment of journalists to improve its media relations service continues to reverberate. The skills vacuum related to integrated communications and reputation management is felt across the network and managing this is a clear priority.

Thankfully short-term decision making has been replaced by a long-term strategic approach which sees professional development as paramount. 

Despite - perhaps due to - the fragmentation of the system, the introduction and use of capability frameworks is finally ensuring communicators within the NHS are being measured against the same knowledge, skills and standards and that their work is aligned with and delivers against organisational objectives. 

Ensuring its communicators have the experience, skillset and ability to step into the strategic adviser role may be well overdue but comes at the perfect time in the history of the NHS. It may well prove that these people will be its saviour. 

In times of crisis, the answer is often the most simple and obvious. 

Those in the communications space offer the NHS its greatest lifeline if they have the courage to speak the truth. 

Not just about rising demand versus lack of investment, understaffing, or how the whole system fails if one of its connected services falters (think hospital bed shortages and how patients move - or don’t - through the network) but about the pressing need for change and how a better service can be achieved for those who have the privilege of using the NHS. 

The risk is now greatly outweighed by the reward

Research shows that the NHS remains one of the most trusted institutions in the UK. According to the Commonwealth Fund healthcare thinktank, whose international partners are the OECD, WHO and European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, it is the best, safest and most affordable healthcare system out of 11 high income countries analysed. Much of its credibility comes from the human face and skills of its employees, who interact with the public every day.

With this in mind, perhaps the biggest lesson for its management teams, communicators and the wider public relations community is to embrace transparency, invest in skills and use real people to lead the debate.

For the NHS this means fielding doctors and nurses and others within the care setting to start the discussion about what the future of healthcare holds, what the journey there looks like and the impact for modern society.

Not just this, it means taking one approach at scale and talking about the true cost of treatment and the value of the service that the public receives. 

Educating people about what they might have paid privately is potentially one solution to reducing non-urgent attendances at A&E.

Explaining the benefits to a total overhaul of the system, while recognising the challenges this will create, could mobilise an army of vocal supporters prepared to lobby the government for what the NHS needs.

Right now, it needs all the support it can get. 


Sarah Hall is a pioneer of best practice in the PR industry. The holder of the CIPR’s Sir Stephen Tallents Medal 2014 for exceptional achievement in public relations practice, she has established a reputation as an ethics tsar and diversity and inclusivity champion.

She is a strong advocate of accountable leadership and women in business and believes in helping young talent break through. 

Sarah is the CIPR’s President for 2018, a member of the Northern Power Women Power List, features in the PRWeek UK Power Book and is a regular speaker at industry events. She is one of Lissted’s top North East England digital influencers.

Sarah is proud to be on the Athena40 Global Committee, an initiative launched by the Global Thinkers Forum to discover and acknowledge the work of the 40 most dynamic, active and fearless female thought leaders, columnists, commentators and activists across all industries and from all over the world.

Sarah Hall
Managing Director
Sarah Hall Consulting Ltd

Mobile: 07702 162 704
Twitter: @Hallmeister