TUESDAY 13 JUN 2017 5:41 PM


Recent terror attacks in both London and Manchester, while atrocious, confirmed what the British public has known to be true for almost 70 years – the NHS is invaluable. Since minister for health under Clement Attlee’s 1945 Labour government, Aneurin Bevan, founded the National Health Service in 1948, its ‘free at the point of use’ service has transformed countless lives. The NHS also currently provides jobs to an estimated 1.4 million employees – including communicators, without whom its complex structures would cease to function. At the inaugural NHS Communications Conference 2017, just how integral the comms industry is to one of the largest, more important organisations in the UK became abundantly clear.

A welcome address by conference chairperson Dr Lawrence McGinty, chair of the Medical Journalists Association, began the day-long event. Communication innovation in the NHS relies on continued questioning, reflected in the morning session which concentrated on the who – ‘Who are you talking to?’, the where – ‘Where have all the As, Bs and Os gone?’, and the how – ‘Maximising your social media profile.’

Particularly striking was assistant director of marketing at NHS Blood and Transplant (NHSBT), Ceri Rose, part of the team behind the award winning 2015 #MissingType social campaign. By mobilising everyday companies, including Waterstones, the Daily Mirror and Google, to hide the As, Bs and Os in their brand name, NHSBT highlighted the vital role specific blood donations plays in the effective functioning of the blood service. While the ongoing A, B and O blood types deficit is not an instantly recognisable problem, subtle changes to instantly recognisable brands communicated the severe impact of blood type shortage. As a result, 30,000 new donors registered during National Blood Week 2015. There was also over 26,000 uses of #NationalBloodWeek and #MissingType across social media.

The NHSBT demonstrate that engaging external stakeholders requires creating popular content. Yet it also became clear that internal buy-in is as, if not more, crucial for ongoing success. For #MissingType, this hinged on what prolific YouTuber and speaker, Tom Scott, says are the two questions that must be asked - ‘What do you want? What does your audience want?’ As well as being integral in using digital for engagement, such questions also highlight how NHS communicators should consider the channel through which their target audience is reached. As the population, and its needs, changes, so too does the method of information consumption; so too does the role of the NHS communicator.

Such consideration is not only true in positive campaigning, however. Times of crisis, when the NHS is under scrutiny, requires methodological use of relevant communications channels. Successful implementation is the difference between making or breaking reputation. The dramatically-named ‘Poison and murder – handling crisis comms’ post-lunch session saw Alicia Custis, head of communication at the Stockport NHS Foundation Trust, discuss a murder case on which the reputation of its main hub, Stepping Hill Hospital, hinged. With the false accusation of an innocent nurse adding more fuel to an already vicious fire, it was only through careful stakeholder management, clarity of community and belief in the trust’s commitment to the wider NHS cause that Custis and her team were guided through. ‘Communication is the sister of leadership,’ says acclaimed academic, John Adair. For the Stockport NHS Foundation Trust, this quote is as relevant to guiding external culture change as it is in overcoming new, workplace-specific, challenges.

Director of communications at NHS Digital, Rachel Royall, used Adair to demonstrate how leadership and strategy can build NHS teams in challenging environments. The success of these two components, says Royall, hinges on the communicator, who in the NHS are privileged due to the ‘umbrella’ or ‘helicopter’ view they have of the organisation. This clarity of vision is an integral part of filling the trust deficit the UK population has in the UK government and associated organisations. However, says Royall, with around 92% of the population trusting nurses, communicators would be foolish to not utilise their expertise in helping deliver campaigns and communicate to hard-to-reach stakeholders. Identifying areas of organisational strength leads to true communication - and therefore leadership.

Held at the ACC Liverpool, much of the confederation delegates hailed from northern clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) and NHS trusts – a far cry from the often London-centric events familiar to those in the communications profession. In a day packed with passionate speakers and real, impactful content, the multiplicity of ways NHS culture drives participation and engagement abound. All that remains to be decided is how best the UK-wide NHS will celebrate during 2018, its 70th birthday. Perhaps protecting its altruistic outlook and excellent, cost-free healthcare for the UK’s population would be the best birthday present Nye Bevan could have hoped for.

The Communications Conference 2017 continues at the ACC Liverpool over 14 and 15 June. To follow the action, follow @NHSConfed and @NHSEmployers on Twitter, searching the hashtag #Commsconf17 or #NHScomms.