The strategic value of communications in the NHS

Ross Wigham profile picture

30 January 2020

Ross Wigham
Deputy director of communications
Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

It looks easy until you try to do it, it can get really messy and you’ll always need to get your hands dirty to create something successful. It turns out that pottery is a lot like public sector communication, as I learned from our resident wheel spinner Lisa Ward who helpfully framed the pottery/public relations/great pottery throw down crossover during our lunch break. The latest communication leads network session focused on strategic value, influence and demonstrating the worth of good communications which all seemed like important points after all the political excitement of recent times. Effective communications sit at the heart of how the NHS engages with patients, communities and staff so the day set out to explore how practitioners can successfully contribute to their organisations at a strategic level.


Tough times

The starting point was an acknowledgment that it’s pretty tough working in the NHS at the moment. The official statistics show that there’s never been as much pressure on services and that demand is increasing relentlessly. The metrics around things like A&E waiting times, cancelled operations and waiting lists don’t make comfortable reading and many trusts are now grappling with increasingly difficult finances. Given these challenges, it’s more important than ever to demonstrate value and highlight results across the organisation. As part of a workshop session several people wondered if we’re doing enough as a profession around this?

Effective communications sit at the heart of how the NHS engages with patients, communities and staff so the day set out to explore how practitioners can successfully contribute to their organisations at a strategic level.

Ross Wigham    Deputy director of communications

Strategic value

Ranjeet Kaile, director of communications and stakeholder engagement at South West London and St George's Trust presented a new piece of work that focused on a new reputation and trust dashboard. He argued the case for a much more scientific and measurable approach that would have parity with reporting used by other professions at board level. As ever the difficulty comes in linking outcomes with outputs and pulling together a range of complex and often tangential factors. The workshop included lots of exciting work currently in development including a better career framework, new ideas for improving diversity in NHS communications and a national council to evaluate work and provide best practice guidance. Kerry Beadling-Barron, director at Mid Nottinghamshire Integrated Care Partnership argued that we need to be braver and also more honest about reporting back, even when things don’t work. That’s why a regular dashboard is an important step for the board and the whole organisation. Having the confidence to properly measure all work takes courage. HR, for example, will still report on a recruitment campaign even if it doesn’t get the hoped for result.


From communications to the top

In a fascinating panel discussion two of the brightest and best explained their own journeys from communications professional to the top table of their respective organisations. Kevin McNamara is now an acting chief executive and Caroline Docking who is an assistant chief executive, both shared some of the secrets of their success and offered advice on following this route. It’s a surprisingly less well trodden path compared to other professions so it was really inspiring to see two communications people doing so well and understanding how they use their skills to demonstrate strategic value at the very top of their NHS organisations. 

Look after yourself... and each other

The Chartered Institution of Public Relations (CIPR), Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and the whole industry point to a significant problem around mental health for communicators so it was great to hear Sally Northeast talk so openly about how she’s approaching this personally and professionally. It brought so much energy and discussion to the room and is clearly an issue affecting many of us. Sally puts it far better: “It’s part of our professional responsibility to look after others but also ourselves.” It shouldn’t be seen as a failure or special treatment – the most successful people know how to make space, take a break and understand the importance of looking after their own mental health. It strikes me that being the people in charge of reputation can be a stressful occupation and like the potter’s wheel your feet can be moving frantically, while everyone else only sees the clay calmly spinning up top.


Seven tips from the panel

Last week two of the sectors most senior communicators spoke to the communication leads network about the skills needed to move beyond the profession. It’s always great to hear tips from people at the very top of the profession so we were incredibly lucky to have two communications professionals that have moved into management positions at the heart of their respective organisations. CIPR often talks about public relations and communications becoming a key management function and while much progress has been made this isn’t always reflected in the make-up of boards, particularly in the public sector. The path from communications professional to chief executive seems to be a less travelled one so to have two examples within the NHS was fantastic. A big thank you to acting chief executive Kevin McNamara and assistant chief executive Caroline Docking for taking the time to talk about their own journeys within the NHS. 

Here are a few thoughts and observations from the session:

  1. Your own life experiences and individual experiences with the NHS are really important. Learn from your worst experiences and be ready to understand the perspectives of others.
  2. Not everything you do will come off but that’s not something to be ashamed of. The 80/20 rule probably comes into play here but that’s the same for all professions.
  3. It’s important to take a really broad view of what communications is about and not just focus on what’s in the control of a traditional communications department. Communications teams will often poses all the skills that very senior management are desperate for: persuasion, intelligence gathering, a high tolerance for risk, people skills and developing an organisational narrative.
  4. Opportunities don’t just fall at your feet and if you want to progress you need to seek them out. Careers aren’t always linear and sometimes it takes you in different directions or even in ways that could be seen as a backward step to help gain a broader skillset.
  5. Communications usually has very close contact with the chief executive and other directors so make the most of it to learn and build profile. Remember to use that ability to raise your own profile as well as that of the organisation.
  6. It can be difficult to gain credibility across other professions because there is often a sense that ‘anyone can do communications’. This resonates with another blog I wrote about the challenges facing us: Read more on that here….
  7. Think about the wider stakeholder mix and not just an ultra-focus on corporate communications or media work. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to speak up in high level meetings. Remember you’re an expert.

The session left me wondering if we sometimes undersell our skills? Things like reputation management and dealing with crisis are things we do every day as a profession but are also vital director level skills.




About the author

Ross Wigham profile picture

Ross Wigham
Deputy director of communications

Ross is also the chair of our communications leads network.