Political engagement in sensitive times from a communications perspective

Ross Wigham profile picture

26 September 2019

Ross Wigham
Head of communications and marketing
Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust


As monsoon conditions swept through early morning London it was easy to see a metaphor with the political weather as commuters struggled against the elements.

So bad was the rainfall on the way to NHS Providers comms leads that I think this was the only conference where I’ve had to get a change of clothes before and after the event.

The theme of the day was centred around political engagement in difficult times and it couldn’t have been better timed given the political and legal storm that broke later that morning.

Just as the session started the smartphone breaking news alerts sounded across the hall relaying the Supreme Court ruling that the government’s proroguing of parliament was unlawful. Extraordinary news. Extraordinary political times.

I’ve been a long time attendee of the comms leads sessions but this was my first one as the newly elected national chair and it was fantastic to have such an interesting range of speakers.

Because of the candid and political nature of the session we agreed to keep most of the discussions in the room, but here are some of my thoughts and observations from the day:

  1. The political environment is more volatile and febrile than we’ve known for a very long time, with even veteran journalists and PR people admitting they’ve never known anything like it. This is impacting the NHS in lots of ways with Brexit sucking the time away from everything else.

  2. The new investment coming into the NHS doesn’t seem to have made much political impact with the public or attracted the positive attention that it has in the past. Has austerity reset public expectations around the NHS so that they expect less than they used to?

  3. One speaker made an interesting point about NHS story fatigue with last winter seeming to confirm that. Of course the Brexit coverage doesn’t leave much room for anything else and the contraction of regional media also plays a significant role.

  4. Political visits – even in normal times – can be difficult to manage and even the best panned ones can go wrong. So be ready for the unexpected and always have somewhere to escape to if needed.

  5. Political engagement shouldn’t all be left to one person because it needs a multi-layered approach. Make friends in 'peacetime' so that you’re not meeting MPs or councillors for the first time when something has gone wrong.

  6. Be aware that elections or times of heightened political activity will bring more scrutiny for the NHS, particularly at a local level.

  7. Not enough people in communications go on to be chief executives but that’s because the management community isn’t used to making these appointments. Part of that could be because we don’t do the right type of development to move into that type of role.

  8. Rising demand is still the big issue facing the whole NHS system regardless of the time of year – this July saw the highest number of A&E attendances ever.

A big thank you to speakers Matt Tee, Denis Campbell, Juliette Marshall, Robyn Jarrett, Sarah Pinch, Ferelith Gaze and Adam Brimelow.

See you all again in January.

About the author

Ross Wigham profile picture

Ross Wigham
Head of communications and marketing

Ross is also the chair of our communications leads network.

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