There was a clear consensus among those who took part in the survey on what they regard as the primary challenges facing NHS trust communicators in the future. The most commonly cited top five challenges were:
- Delivering more activity with less resource: the number one challenge identified by senior communicators was how to respond to a growing and more complex workload with less resource – both in terms of staff capacity and non-staff budgets. The majority of respondents cited this, with many expressing concerns that shrinking budgets will leave them short of specialist expertise and increase reputational risk.
- Effective engagement as part of transformation initiatives: engaging with the public, staff and stakeholders over major service changes, especially as part of STPs and the move to accountable care structures, was almost universally recognised by senior communicators as an area that will require more time, focus and sophisticated approaches. A number of respondents pointed to a lack of experience and expertise in conducting public engagement exercises. Many respondents also voiced concerns over how their trusts and local partners will be able to work effectively together to engage meaningfully with an often sceptical public when it comes to major service change. Many see one of the solutions to this challenge to be more integrated working between trust, commissioning and local authority communications teams, as well as between the communications departments of neighbouring trusts.
- Recruiting and retaining high-quality staff: many respondents cited difficulties they are experiencing in recruiting and retaining high-quality staff. Financial pressures are making it increasingly difficult for senior communicators to staff their teams effectively. Many commented that a more complex and demanding workload, combined with a lack of training and development opportunities, is making NHS trust communications a less attractive career option. A lack of career structure and development pathway is also regarded by many as a barrier to the profession.
- Keeping up with new technologies and innovations: many respondents expressed concerns about being able to think creatively about how to develop innovative, evidenced-based practice within the context of constrained budgets and smaller teams – often with fewer specialists in post. Many felt that they were not able to adopt new technologies to improve the ways in which they communicate because of a lack of time and expertise. Many said they felt a lack of ‘digital maturity’ within their trusts is holding them back from more fully using digital tools and shifting their approach from more traditional media channels.
- Demonstrating return on investment: a final key challenge identified by senior communicators is how best to demonstrate impact and return on investment. A number of respondents said they felt under increasing pressure to find more effective ways of demonstrating impact in the face of increased scrutiny on communications expenditure and that of other so-called back office functions.