This report provides benchmarking data on the state of communications practice within NHS trusts, as well as analysis and thought leadership on the future of NHS communications. The centrepiece is a survey completed by senior communicators from 130 NHS trusts – more than half of the provider sector. This research will be repeated to track how communicators are adapting and responding to future challenges.

  • The majority of senior NHS communicators working in trusts are female, white, hold an honours degree and three quarters have been working in NHS/healthcare communications for seven years or more. There is a marked lack of ethnic diversity among those in the most senior communications roles.
  • There is significant variation between trusts on the size of their communications team and where they sit within the internal hierarchy and structure. On average, trusts employ seven full-time equivalent communications staff.
  • Less than half (44%) of communications leaders report into their chief executive, while only 24% sit on their trust’s board. Despite this, most communications leaders feel they have a good working relationship with their chief executive and two thirds feel they have parity with other senior staff.
  • As with other parts of the NHS, communications teams face budget cuts and efficiency savings as part of their contribution to cost improvement plans. Senior communicators fear this is eroding their ability to contribute most effectively to helping their trust achieve its strategic objectives.
  • Funding constraints and workload pressures are forcing some communications leaders to move towards smaller teams based on more generalist roles and fewer specialists. Many respondents said they feared this was leaving their trusts short of specialist communications expertise.
  • Communications leaders report a general shift in their priorities over the last year towards more public, staff and stakeholder engagement as trusts undertake transformation initiatives. However, eight in 10 leaders and their teams are spending less than a day a week supporting their STP. This is likely to represent some progress though, and many trust communicators recognise the importance of working more closely with their NHS and local government counterparts.
  • One theory as to why communicators do not always enjoy parity with other NHS professions is that, individually and collectively, the profession may not be doing enough to demonstrate strategic value. Responses to this survey reveal variation in how much time, energy and focus senior communicators are putting into this, with impact assessment often sacrificed when teams are short staffed and over-worked.
  • Communicators are concerned that budget and capacity constraints are impeding professional development. A majority do not think there is enough training and development provided by the NHS system, though many recognise the value of recent NHS England and NHS Improvement initiatives to support development.
  • There was consensus on what respondents regard as the main challenges facing communicators: delivering more activity with less resource; effective engagement as part of transformation initiatives; recruiting and retaining high-quality staff; embracing new technologies; and demonstrating return on investment.