Good communications sits at the heart of how the NHS engages with its patients, service users, local communities, staff and other key stakeholders. When done well, it can improve the patient and public experience, as well as ensuring NHS trusts engage more effectively with their staff.
For senior NHS communicators to play as effective a role as possible in the running of their organisations, they need to be involved at a strategic level. However, too often communications is not regarded as a strategic function and is considered by many senior communicators to have a ‘second class’ status compared to other board-level positions.
But attitudes are changing and many NHS leaders are recognising the strategic contribution that communications and engagement can make. This has become more important given the proliferation of channels through which trusts need to stay engaged with their local communities, as well as the communications and engagement challenges presented by sustainability and transformation partnerships (STPs) and the move to accountable care.
Other challenges, such as constrained budgets, require communicators (and other NHS professions) to deliver more with less, while the breakdown of traditional media and the rise of digital and social media has increased the complexity and volume of work that communicators are being required to undertake.
Attitudes are changing and many NHS leaders are recognising the strategic contribution that communications and engagement can make.
These factors present opportunities and challenges to communicators in the NHS and other parts of the public sector. To help them respond, this report provides a snapshot of the state of trust communications through benchmarking data, as well as thought leadership on future practice.
It paints a picture of hope in that it shows communications professionals at their best – whether that is delivering high-profile campaigns that lead to desired behaviour change, leading public, staff and stakeholder engagement strategies as part of transformation initiatives, or providing high-quality information to patients.
However, of concern is that it also paints a picture of a pressured and over-worked profession, with too few staff, too many demands and not enough opportunities for professional development. It also reveals the NHS communications profession has more progress to make until it truly has a ‘seat at the top table’, with only 44% of communications leaders reporting into their trust’s chief executive and only 24% on their trust’s board. The conundrum facing many senior communicators is that, while they know they need to do more to demonstrate strategic value, the time and space they have to do this is being eroded.
And, finally, given the importance of STPs and the changes to services they will deliver, it is vital communications leaders and their teams are afforded the time and space they need to engage more fully in these initiatives.
We hope this report makes a useful contribution to debates and discussion on how the NHS communications profession can continue to make progress towards becoming the strategic function it aspires to be.
Director of Communications