It’s easy to assume that the comms team is there to handle press enquiries and the occasional social media storm – but the reality is that strategic communications can make a measurable impact across the entire organisation, from operational to financial, when done properly.
We often find that healthcare providers - from hospitals to health tech businesses - have effective press and communications teams, but need to up-skill in cases involving risk and reputation, when campaigning for a specific objective, or when managing a wider stakeholder universe.
In these cases, the requirements go far beyond press releases and interview requests, but with the right expertise, the results can be transformative. Here are ten examples:
1. Risk and reputation
Some of the most important results achieved in comms projects have been the stories you don’t see, rather than the stories you do. Every day, behind the scenes at a hospital for example, there are local journalists asking thorny questions; residents’ groups on Facebook complaining about traffic congestion, parking or noise; unfounded insinuations or gossip; or potential scandals that threaten to undermine public confidence in the organisation. It takes a team of highly skilled people to anticipate, mitigate and compensate these stories and ensure they don’t go viral. Tip: stay ahead of the story and keep control of the narrative.
2. Rapid response
Much of comms strategy boils down to two factors: opportunities and threats. You need to be quick to take advantage of the former and to head off the latter, but in an organisation on the scale of a Foundation Trust, decision-making is often done by committee and all too slowly. Having a senior comms person with the autonomy to make quick decisions is essential, or failing that an experienced team with direct channels and escalation protocols in place so that responses can be coordinated and decisive. Tip: almost 100% of the time, any response is better than no response. But somebody needs to take responsibility for the risk.
A mega-project is defined as a project that is delivered by a consortium of more than one major organisation – for example, a hospital that has joined forces with its local university, college, town council and central Government. It is vitally important to have expert PR advisors at the top table, reporting directly to the Project Development Group. Tip: a comms steering group, chaired by the PR advisors, should convene at least fortnightly to ensure consistency of message and output.
4. Funding bids
When applying for much-needed funding, it won’t be the PR campaign alone that wins it. But this is a vital component. Here again we see the recurring theme of competition. When multiple institutions are applying for a finite supply of money, a decisive factor is persuasion. This includes showcasing a reputable and credible leadership team, demonstrating excellence in delivery, or proving that you have a robust improvement plan in place where necessary. Tip: think about what appears on the first page of Google when a third party searches your organisation. Would a well-placed, well-timed press interview improve the picture?
5. Community engagement
NHS comms teams are often highly skilled at behaviour change campaigns. It’s a key aspect of looking after public health. Campaigns such as anti-smoking or new parent support can be very rewarding as they directly deliver measurable improvements in people’s lives. But there are other more nuanced change campaigns that you need to consider every day, especially where some of our audience may hold less than favourable opinions. Turnaround of public sentiment can appear to be an unfathomable task but it can be achieved with good PR strategy: listening as well as talking, staying on-message and demonstrating transparency and delivery on promise. Tip: understand the concept of micro-influencers as well as macro. “Hyperlocal” voices such as local residents’ committees can be powerful allies once you’ve found an alignment of interests.
The NHS skills and workforce crisis is always in the headlines. With a finite pool of talent and competition from outside the sector threatening to sap away skilled people, your recruitment, retention and employer brand all require a campaigning mindset. Tip: identify the “heroes” in your organisation. There’s a reason they work here. Find out what it is and incentivise them to tell that story in the form of a case study or an award nomination. People love being celebrated for the excellent work they do.
7. Promotion and publicity
Let’s not forget that, like any job, there’s an inevitable need for healthcare professionals to give the best account of themselves. You may not be “selling” anything, but certain marketing principles still apply: healthcare is competitive and target-driven, and you need the outside world to perceive you how you want to be perceived. This means communicating a consistent picture of what you’re doing well. If you don’t tell that story, nobody else will tell it for you. Tip: not everyone is comfortable being a “self-publicist”. But sharing insights from your work on channels like LinkedIn and internally with staff is a good start.
8. Internal politics
Healthcare is not unique in being rife with workplace politics. In every organisation, especially the larger ones, there is always a complex web of vested interests, competing departments, disagreements on strategic direction, or simply teams that are so absorbed in their work that they aren’t fully informed on what other teams are doing. This is why an internal comms strategy is essential, to navigate the differing stakeholders and to find alignment of purpose. Tip: this is where an external (and therefore impartial) advisor such as a PR agency is necessary.
9. External politics
As arguably our most vital public service, healthcare providers will already have a close working relationship with their local elected representatives. In dealings with councillors and MPs, you should always take a campaigning mindset – because they certainly do. Many PR principles transfer into public affairs, but with certain key differences. For example, you need to tell your story concisely and compellingly, whether briefing a journalist or an MP, however the big difference is the journalist does not work for you and owes you no favours. The politician on the other hand will actively help if your call to action is clear and sensible. Tip: look for alignment of interests. If your key ask can be linked to a pledge or policy of theirs, you’re more likely to achieve a result.
By now I hope it’s clear that clever communications don’t just lead to reputation and relationship outcomes. Fundamental operational requirements, from regulatory compliance to adoption of new technology, all depend on the hearts and minds of people. The very definition of a campaign is an organised course of action to achieve a goal. Whatever the change you’re trying to drive, if you build the principles of public relations into your strategy, you’re shortening the odds in your favour.
Oliver Chesher, founder and managing director, Galibier PR