NHS comms staff need to become agents of change


agents of change

NHS Comms staff need to become agents of change


Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Association of Healthcare Communications and Marketing conference. A trend among the presentations was one of exploring the uncertain future: what is going to happen to social marketing? How could comms staff secure their future? Will GP consortia understand the comms function?

It’s a theme that the CIPR have tackled head on with their latest campaign. My presentation fitted this theme nicely. It was a call to arms based on the ICE view of what the public sector ought to be focusing on right now coupled with the personal view of why NHS communicators are the best placed to drive the agenda. The concept is simple: own the internal and external behaviour change agenda. Get the necessary skills and create a roadmap for getting your organisation there. And focus on a return on investment.

Because the behaviour change agenda is a natural fit with the corporate communicator. Good behaviour change requires good communications. In terms of organisational change: where can we identify opportunities for the organisation to do more, or better, for less? In terms of social change: where can we identify opportunities to nudge service users to make more cost effective choices? Organisational change fails without strong internal comms, particularly from the organisation leaders. And societal change always requires good communications – even when the change is brought about only by making adjustments to a service delivery, it is based on the customer experience and that is an agenda which should be owned by the comms team.

For example, our Lean systems team worked for NHS Buisness Services in Newcastle where European Health Insurance Card applications and claims are processed. They helped them make massive, demonstrable improvements in customer experience as well as identify cashable benefits of more than £500,000.  In Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service, they used to have an average sickness absence rate of over 10 days per person per year. It’s expensive to continually cover for sickness, hiring more firefighters than you need on a shift in case some call in sick. Strong internal communications and powerful behaviour change interventions reduced absenteeism to an average of 5 days, and brought about £1.27m in savings.

Comms managers: get involved in internal change. Work with organisational development and HR teams, own this agenda.

Social change is already much more commonly led by communications. But programmes need to be smarter. They need to link with service improvements and efficiencies, and they need to be built on a strong business case which will deliver a calculable return on investment. It is much more powerful to to approach your Finance Director with good evidence that if we do X the savings will be Y.

Hiring an agency like ICE to do it? Set targets. We’re up for the challenge. North East Lincolnshire Care Trust set us revenue saving targets from reduced A&E attendances when working with the complex needs of young people not in employment, education or training. We smashed them. Or if you want to reduce avoidable hospital admissions, for example COPD this winter, calculate what you think you might save based on the tariff price of admissions and get payment by results.

Above all, own this territory. Because GPs are already uncertain about whether they are able to meet the demands required of them after the forthcoming changes, and they will need the help of experts. They won’t know you are an expert unless you tell them now. (After all, it seems pretty clear here that they already need help understanding how communication with the public works).

The communications function has come on a long way since I first worked in the health field 10 years ago. But as professionals we can’t stand still, we have to keep learning new skills and new tools. We need to foster a culture of performance management within communications. When I did a straw poll at the conference, not a single manager monitored the utilisation of their staff. GPs already believe that, at best, many health service managers are full of earnest endeavour but fall short on delivery of results. At worst, I’ve seen them (unfairly) describe PCT management as bloated and pointless.

PCT communications professionals need to convince their potential future employers that they are as driven, innovative and entrepreneurial as any good GP practice. This is a paradigm shift in what good corporate communications is about.

All staff at all levels can own this agenda. Create a new blueprint. You already have the skills, knowledge and experience. Utilise communications, brand awareness and research skills to drive the agenda and change behaviours.


One Comment

  1. Georgie Agass
    Posted Monday 11th October 2010 at 5:45 PM | Permalink | Reply

    A fine summary Mr F, and it was a good masterclass you led – very motivating. Well done.

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