Bringing together health comms professionals and making everyone better … hopefully.

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2 minutes of your time

It is the digital black gold of the 21st Century, it is a vital part of any corporate strategy or it is the plague of modern times.

However you look at it, you can’t escape it. It is everywhere. Surveys will get you.

Our lives are drowning in them. Every second website asks you to answer a few short questions, or someone in the street stops you to ask your view on whether biscuits should crumble or melt.


Nowhere is survey safe anymore.

Even our news is saturated with it as companies use surveys to try and shoehorn their product/message into the daily news agenda. Earlier this month we were treated to the revelation of Wales’ favourite sexual position and other heart shaped nonsense.

But the answers to those questions, that customer insight, is incredibly valuable and is busy making Silicon Valley types billions of dollars a year.

So how do you get a slice of that action? (I’m talking some customer insight not billions of dollars, though I wouldn’t say no …)

Modern comms is all about having a conversation and evidencing why you are doing what you are doing.

An important part of that is understanding what those you serve, or are trying to reach, want.

What better way to do that than launch yet another survey?

I’ve always been a bit sceptical of surveys. We put so much stock in what they tell us but how accurate are they? I was at a presentation last year where a marketing firm were talking about survey results as if they were gospel.

Can a few people speak for the majority?

Can a few people speak for the majority?

Tucked away in a very small font on the presentation was the sample size – just 200. I asked if that was enough to base such sweeping assumptions and a list of actions on? Apparently it was?

We see the results of YouGov polls, based on a couple of hundred people’s views, become headline news and by all accounts the alchemy involved in their sample is pretty accurate.

So sceptical, but keen to gain some insight, we launched our comms survey just before Christmas. We did one survey for staff members and one for the public hoping each would help to steer our actions over the next 12 months and beyond.

Here I’ll just look at our staff results. Our prevoius internal comms survey had returned what I regarded at the time as a rather poor response – just 179. This poor show despite the fact we were dangling a new camera as a prize.

This time around, determined to do better and armed with a number of prizes we set about spreading the word, pushing the survey through out digital channels and our partners.

The result? A rather healthy 523 responses. I say healthy, but it still only accounts for 3.7% of our workforce. A bit of research suggests this means that we can be confident that our results are accurate to a degree of 90%.

Was it worth it? I think so. Here’s what I took away from it.

  • Social media and good relationships with partners helps to boost response numbers.
  • People overall said that comms was mostly ok, good or very good in the health board.
  • Sadly, the above statement wasn’t borne out by some of the answers to later questions.
  • People rely heavily on digital communications but put huge stock in face to face engagement.
  • Giving people a free-text response leads only to lots of work.
  • That work is where the real benefit is in terms of gauging mood and identifying ways forward.
  • We should have done more to encourage responses from those not digitally connected.
  • Offering people a free back rub is a good way of getting responses (I’ll stress that this was one of our prizes from a professional, not the comms team sailing dangerously close to the line between hands on work and legal proceedings).

I have to admit that I’m pleased with the work – it’s around three times the response that we had last time. That said much of what was fed back to us was stuff we pretty much felt we knew about the issues. However, there were still nuggets of insight that were very worthwhile.

There’s also the value in being able to evidence some of the things you’ve suspected for some time. It’s not just a few comms people pushing their own agenda. The people have spoken. They want better comms, better access, more face to face engagement and more of the info that’s important to them.

But also, backrubs. They want backrubs.

PIC Credit: Heather McQuaid (top), Wiki Commons





Wolf at the door? Let him in.

It is a natural instinct, when the bombs are raining down stick on your hard hat, dive for cover and wait for them to run out of ammo.

For many, many years that was the response in healthcare when the media flak started to fly.

Headlines causing headaches? Criticism consternation? Kick-start Operation Ostrich – stick your head in the sand and it will all be chip paper by the morning.

Unfortunately/thankfully, depending on your point of view, that isn’t the case anymore. Digital now means that those unfavorable headlines and comments are there for the long haul – like a Parliamentarian wannabe, they won’t go away.

So what do you do? You can’t walk around with a hard hat all the time for fear of being labelled some kind of lame attempt at a Village People tribute act.

Thankfully comms has moved on and more people than most get it.

When the Big Bad Wolf is huffing and puffing, you could do worse than actually let him in.

Because the truth is that the stories behind the headlines are rarely as black and white as people would like the public to believe. But if you want the public to see, and better still understand, your own brand of grey then you have to open the door – it can be so much more effective than posting a press release through the letterbox.

Take for example our recent headline grabbing incident. A nurse had taken the opportunity to step into the health board’s highest level forum and paint a graphic, powerful picture of life in the Emergency Unit. It served as a difficult, yet inspiring reminder of the challenges 21st Century healthcare is posing. Those in the room tell me it made everyone redouble their efforts to find solutions to the problems.

The letter was shared with other colleagues afterwards. Unfortunately it was then shared by an unknown third party with the media. The nurse involved was mortified due to the high level of patient detail it included.

The comms team worked hard with clinical colleagues to put hard hats on and try and make sure the news was reported in the right context. A briefing was given about the nature of the letter and that this wasn’t a case of ‘whistleblowing’ and a significant statement issued (whatever happened to journalists asking questions rather than just for a comment?).

As expected it splashed on the frontpageIMG_0419 IMG_0420 and the media storm clouds started to gather with the BBC huffing and puffing around the issue.

The CEO asked what to do. The advice? Bring them in. Let them, and the public, see for themselves what life is like and to hear from staff about what they are doing to care for people.

I expected to have to make a bit of a case for the proposal but it was signed off almost immediately and the team on the ground agreed, albeit with a degree of unease.

Two hours of filming, interviews, walkarounds and explaining later a very different picture was being painted. The graphic account of life ‘on the frontline’ was still there, but this time it was seen a broader context.

As good as I like to think comms people are, no press release, no matter how well crafted, can tell the story of staff in their own words, with their own passion. Nothing reassures people more than seeing it with their own eyes. Yes it was busy, yes staff admitted it was high pressured and the system was under great strain. But what the journalists saw, and hopefully the public understood, was that here were people working fantastically hard who truly are doing all they can to care and help.

Also staff felt that their voice was being heard and there was more balance to the reporting.

There was an uncomfortable few seconds which all comms professionals dread when an eager patient calls over the media. What are they going to say?

In this instance he said he’d been there for a while waiting. Grimace. But he also added that he had had fantastic care and that the problem was ‘too many people like me who are sick’.

Who could have put it better?

The outcome? Hopefully staff morale was lifted rather than booted. The public have a better understanding of how the system works and what they can do to help it. The journalists themselves have a better understanding of the nuances of health care and just how complex it is. It also meant staff were more comfortable allowing the cameras in for 24 hours! (more on that again).

The truth is though, that as effective as that work was, it’s not something you can do everyday. That balance between working with the media, sharing important messages, educating the public and not disrupting important care services is a hard one to manage and more often than not you have to tell them no.

But at least in future when they come huffing and puffing they know a bit better about what our house is made of. And the truth of the matter is that our house is made of pretty amazing stuff.

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What’s the point of us?

You would think that someone questioning just what is the point of my particular profession would prompt anger and outrage?

But to be honest when a surgeon tweeted ‘what’s the point of comms’ I understood where he was coming from.

YPDon’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with it (it would be a very foolish comms professional who penned his own P45) but I do understand where that think is coming from.

In these days of deficits and austerity it can seem quite sensible to question the value in recruiting a communications officer compared to a nurse, or healthcare support worker. It’s very much akin to that popular rant about too many managers and not enough doctors and nurses.

The reality is you need a mix of so many different people to make this giant, at times fantastic, at times frustrating, NHS machine to work. If the hospitals were full of just doctors and nurses then it simply wouldn’t work without those other important cogs in the system – of which comms is one.

I think that the ‘what’s the point of  NHS comms’ thinking still exists in many places is due to a few reasons. Firstly, the NHS has been slower than most public sector organisations to recognise and value the role proper communications can play.

That leads into my second point – that even where comms is valued in the NHS it is often still seen as the press office. Those guys you call when it has all gone wrong and there’s genuinely aggrieved patient/relative/politician etc demanding answers to some pretty tough questions.

I’m pleased to say that we do that reactive job rather well which is probably why many see comms as having that fire-fighter role – but modern comms is so much more than that.

FlyfishingI’m working on a bit of a campaign which I’ve dubbed a Yellow Pages approach to comms – basically saying, just like those adverts from years ago for the big yellow book, ‘We’re not just here for the nasty things in life – we can help with the fun things too.’

(Plus comms seem to be the default place to send queries when nobody knows where they should go).

So I think it’s important to recognise that actually NHS comms needs a dose of its own medicine and a bit better promotion.

One of the points made against NHS comms was that we don’t need any more business, and that is completely true (apart from in England where actually they have to compete for the ‘custom’ of some patient groups).

We need a bums off seats, not bums on seats approach. That isn’t easy to do – ask anyone who has been urging people to Choose Well when accessing health services for the last few years.

Getting those messages heard is very important to make sure that the limited resources the NHS has are used in the most efficient way. Equally, good comms can play a role in avoiding future bums on seat by helping to promote healthy living messages and helping to reduce the future burden of things like dementia and diabetes that are already having a major impact on services.

Services also benefit from having a comms team on the frontline – not having to field frequent calls from journalists looking for the information or the most appropriate person to provide them with that. Having worked in the NHS for more than four years I know how difficult it can be to find the right source for that info. I genuinely believe that a comms person’s time in dealing with media queries is much more efficient than perhaps a dozen calls to different departments trying to find the right person or info. Much better for someone away from patient care to be dealing with that and being that source of quick reliable info in this ‘upload it now’ rolling news world we live in.

Providing good quality, easily digestible information is another important role for the modern NHS comms team. Managing websites and supporting clinical teams also brings benefits. By making information available online it can avoid the need for the public to ring up wards, departments etc in their quest for info or advice.

Equally a good comms set up goes beyond just spamming out information – it acts as  a modern day digital customer service facility too. The number of engagements with patients and the public through social media is growing at a pace with more and more people prepared to voice their unhappiness with care and concerns on a digital platform. There needs to be someone there to listen and respond.

 Whilst this can be seen as another potential source of negative comments on the NHS in my experience the opposite is true. I see far more genuinely grateful comments, thanks and pats on the back on social media than I do critical ones – and we are able to help share those too.

At the same time we are able to help identify those people unhappy with care and link them up with the concerns team so their voices can be heard and anything that has gone wrong put right for other patients. Mid Staffs showed that patient voices need to be heard. I took to heart the comments of one of the Mid Staff investigators who said that those negative comments are actually the greatest source of improvement – health services need to know what’s broken so they can fix it.

Mid Staff was also a watershed moment in the relationship between the media and health. In recent years the halo has fallen off doctors and nurses with the media and politicians feeling able to criticise them in the instances where poor standards or care are evident.

That gloves off approach to reporting the health service in the UK has led to a tsunami of critical reporting in recent years – much of it justified, but also much of it not.

A good  modern comms team is able to help try and balance out that picture. It can help promote the good work that is happening on wards and departments across the country. The bad news, as they say, will always find it’s way onto the news agenda. Not so the good news – someone has to be a cheerleader for this incredible team.

Raising the profile of their work has never been so important in offering reassurance to a public told that everytime they engage with health they are taking their lives in their hands – the opposite being true. How much richer is the understanding of the health service since the rise of programmes such as 24 Hours In A&E and One Born? Could they have happened without comms professionals? Yes. Would it have been a harder thing to deliver and result in more disruption to services? Probably so.

There’s an incredible value in being able to redress the balance and actually remind people that for every negative headline you see there are scores of positive ones that go unreported each day. For many people they are only on their news agenda when it touches them or the ones they love. Spotting and sharing those words of thanks online or in local papers is another important step in keeping staff motivated in taking on the daily difficult challenges of 21st Century health care.

Health boards in Wales are spending billions of pounds each year providing a rich mix of highly skilled, highly committed people doing a variety of important work. They are huge, complicated businesses with a workforce who need to know what is happening, what is changing, where they are going and also what a good job they are doing. That is the specialist role that NHS comms provides as a very small but, I think, important part of the health machine.

So what value NHS Comms? We’re not the vital frontline staff. We are though providing support that helps them carry out their very difficult, very important work. That’s the point of us.

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A case for comms and the comms2point0 unawards?

By Dan Slee, Comms2pointo

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that the case for good comms in the NHS is as plain as a stubbed toe.

So you may be surprised at a conversation the other night prompted by a private sector surgeon who frankly rubbished the idea of needing communications.

His logic went that the NHS didn’t need any more customers so why bother communicating?

He was politely met with a list of reasons why actually, yes, it’s a good idea to have a team who specialise in PR, digital and communications. Isn’t it better, pointed out one, that surgeons were free to do their job rather than answer a press enquiry?

I’d like to suggest that there isn’t just a need for communications.
There is also a need to celebrate and promote good communications.
It’s one of the reasons behind the comms2point0 unawards which we have launched and whose deadline for entries is upon us. Let me explain:

Who are comms2point0?

We started three years ago as a place to share best practice and ideas. The comms landscape is changing and we wanted a place to share good thinking. It was formed by Darren Caveney, a head of comms in the NHS, and Dan Slee who left local government to work on comms2point0 full time. Aside from a blog we also help organisations communicate better. We’ve done some work for Public Health Wales, NHS Trusts and others in the public sector.

What and who are the unawards for?

There are 14 categories. They are free to enter and open to the public sector and third sector. There is even a category for the private sector. Take a look at the categories and for more information here:

Where and when and how much?

They’ll be held at The Electric cinema, Station Street, Birmingham from 10am to 2pm on Thursday December 11. They’re free to enter and tickets cost £20 if you are quick. After the ceremony, we’ll be having a special screening of Armando Iannucci satire ‘In the Loop’ (cert: 15.)

What are the categories?

1. Best communications team

2. Best communications officer (this includes digital too) * public
vote* sponsored by Alive – The Ideas Agency

3. Best small team (from one-man band up to three people max) *public
vote* sponsored by David Banks Media Law

4. Lifetime achievement to comms * public vote* sponsored by Touch Design

5. Best post on comms2point0 in 2014 *public vote* sponsored by Alive
– The Ideas Agency

6. Best internal communications campaign – sponsored by All Things IC

7. Best communications for change activity – sponsored by Public Sector Customer Services Forum

8. Best piece of creative comms – sponsored by Capacity Grid

9. Best freebie or low cost communications campaign

10. Best email marketing – sponsored by GovDeliveryUK

11. Best social media campaign – sponsored by Digital Action Plan

12. Best private sector/agency comms campaign or initiative – sponsored by Lesniak Swann

13. Best ‘Worst comms’ (this can be anything from use of clip art, worst poster, silliest random request – feel free to be creative) – sponsored by Alive – The Ideas Agency

14. Best collaboration – Sponsored by Knowledge Hub

What’s the deadline?

It’s midnight on November 12.

How can I enter?

Pick a category, write 400 words to tell us why you should win and email to dan@comms2point0 and darren@comms2point0.

How will they be judged?

There are some public votes and some by a panel of judges.

Good luck!


Telephone: 07411 424809
Email: dan@comms2point0
Twitter: @danslee and @comms2point0

At Comms2point0 we help organisations communicate better.

We’ve got a blog with more than 400 case studies and we serve up six links on Twitter every working day. Because we love you there’s also a regular email which you can sign up for here:


Keep Calm and Prioritise

By Lois Hough, Senior Communications Officer at the Welsh Ambulance Service

ANYONE in a communications role will tell you that the job is busy at the best of times, and frenzied to the point of nervous breakdown at the worst.

But busy is an understatement when you’re one of two people responsible for internal and external communications on behalf of 3,000 staff at a Wales-wide organisation that is never far away from the headlines.

‘Efficient’ is my middle name, but never have I had to call upon my organisational skills more than when I joined the Welsh Ambulance Service’s Corporate Communications team a year ago.

Each day not only do you face a barrage of queries about incidents, you’re trying to arrange television and radio interviews and craft carefully-written statements which are open and honest whilst protecting the reputation of the Trust.

MultitaskingYou also have to try and balance the day-to-day stuff with progressing long-running projects, like campaigns, events, television series and the like. Then there are the weekly, monthly and quarterly newsletters for staff, and don’t even get me started on the Intranet, Internet and Annual Report.

I plead frustration but I love my job really. By the time I pause for a moment in the whirlwind, it’s 4.55pm and almost time to go home.

Feeling overwhelmed by your workload can actually make you counter-productive, so the secret to success is to prioritise.

To-do list

Don’t keep it on a post-it note and definitely don’t keep it in your head. At the beginning of each day or week, write on a piece of paper what you want to get done and by when. Better still, write it in a word document. It’s easier to edit, and re-rank the different tasks in order of importance. Try not to be too overoptimistic. Be honest with yourself about what you can achieve in a working day or week so that you don’t feel overwhelmed from the start.

Don’t be a slave to your emails

Don’t let your inbox drive your workload. Fifty emails a day is 50 interruptions to your day. Don’t check your inbox every time a message arrives. Instead check in every half an hour to an hour. Switch off your instant alerts if necessary.

Learn to delegate

It’s great to take ownership of you work, but don’t be afraid to ask for help. Is there one task that always ends up at the bottom of the pile? If you find you’re avoiding it, can someone else do it? Consider delegating projects that you don’t need to be involved in, or allocate a specific time when you only do your admin or expenses, for example.

Keep multitasking to a minimum

Starting a number of jobs simultaneously means one or more of them won’t get your undivided attention. Think of multitasking as dealing with more than one task during a day, not at the same time. That way you focus on the project in hand.

Don’t procrastinate

There’s no bigger thrill than ticking items off your to-do list, but avoid procrastination by completing the quick and easy tasks first. The more challenging projects might take more time, but once completed they are a huge weight off your shoulders.

I’d love to hear your top tips on how to prioritise, please leave a comment below.

Write Comms4Health blog ✔


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No Surrender at the Alamo!

By Mark Harvey, Media Development Officer, Velindre Cancer Centre

Velindre NHS Trust has just had their Annual General Meeting (AGM). This year was different from other years as we recorded the whole thing on video with the aim of uploading the four presentations to YouTube.

For those of you already engrossed in the world of video and social media, this might seem a non-event but for us it proved a steep and valuable learning curve. Our AGMs have always been traditional in nature with only those present benefitting from the presentations made by the various speakers. Our aim this year was to get them onto YouTube. If we could do this we could engage with a far larger audience and hence our video dream began.

image003Video demands a different way of thinking; you need a steady platform, good light and preferably good audio recording facilities. This first we had covered; I already owned a tripod sturdy enough to form a bridge support. James had the camera (or so we thought) and a planned layout for the room seemed to have most angles covered. The plan seemed good.

Alas history is scattered with plans that never quite go as you expect as this event was to prove no different. For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of visiting Velindre NHS Trust HQ in Nantgarw, there are three meeting rooms that, even when combined into one, still can’t be called anything more than a large room. On the day, a different seating arrangement and a room packed to capacity meant all our plans simply went out the window.

image002Technology also played its fickle hand. The Nikon SLR camera we intended to use had a 10 minute limit to video grabs. With the best will in the world, 10 minutes does not an AGM make! So enter into the fray my trusty Hitachi HD video camera. It’s a bit like me – old, a bit basic, but reliable enough and on the day delivered with just one cell of battery life remaining. Phew!

A quick check of the movie file revealed that small video cameras have equally small microphones. The audio left a lot to be desired. Thankfully ‘Audacity’ – an audio editing program that I have come into contact with through a 1000 Lives communications event – saved the day. Audacity has a great range of features that can tweak audio files and thus I was just about able to ‘save’ the audio.

We figured that each clip could also benefit from an introductory screen and PowerPoint (in my view one of Microsoft’s best ever applications) came to the rescue. In 10 minutes  the four intro screens were done, exported to jpeg files, and imported into the video application. The video application as I have not yet mentioned this was Movieplus 6X by Serif (good applications just avoid the follow up sales staff). It is a fully featured video application that I have used for a good few years now and is leagues ahead of Moviemaker, yet still easy to learn by your average PC user.

image006With everything now in place we set about constructing the four clips. Clips one, two and three went without hitch, each being uploaded to YouTube in turn. The fourth clip, with the supporting files from the web, proved a complete pain. The sound track simply disappeared half way through the rendered file. After checking and re-checking things several times we finally came to the conclusion that the PC simply wasn’t up to the task and was running out of memory. By changing the rendered file type and dropping the quality a tad, BINGO – file rendered! Just over 20 minutes to spare before the weekend began!

Looking back at the proceedings now, the video files could be better –  in fact a lot better but with the tech and physical issues we had on the day, we are happy with the results. We achieved what we had aimed to achieve and within a 24 hours timeframe when events were still fresh in people’s minds. Things could have gone better though. A better camera position, audio recording, the PC used for editing etc, would all have made my life easier in that 24 hours. All these lessons are lessons learned that we can take on board and correct for future events.

We welcome the video revolution long may it continue. Here are the fruits of our labour:

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What’s up Buck?

421733590_be61a6716c_bRobots delivering laundry and meals to wards – they say the NHS in England is different to Wales and in some respects they aren’t wrong.

It sounds like something from Buck Rogers (beedee beedee beedee) but is actually a new purpose built hospital at Southmead Hospital Bristol I visited during a trip across the border.

I think everyone would agree that some of the exchanges across the Severn Bridge in recent months have hardly been cordial with claim and counter claim about the state of the NHS in Wales being poured over by the media.

Battle lines are clearly being drawn and the Welsh health service is currently a set of political duelling pistols.

But thankfully we’re a much more collaborative bunch in the world of health communications. So when I was pointed in the direction of Tim Bartlett, Head of Marketing and Communications at North Bristol NHS Trust for some advice I received a warm welcome.

Tim and team, I had been told, had done a huge amount of work developing the Trust’s website and so we were keen to see what lessons could be learned from their experience.

There were lessons aplenty. I shan’t go into detail but there was some excellent food for thought. Here are some ideas I thought important to share.

  1. They know what they’re talking about – they have seen unique website visitor numbers soar from 30k to 100k a month in just two years.
  2. There’s money to be spent if it can be saved – Tim funded the new web platform and relaunch after cutting server costs by almost two thirds.
  3. There are deals to be had out there – Bristol has commissioned a significant amount of films  for just £25k over two years. Compared to some of the bills I’ve heard of for video production in recent years that seems like a steal.
  4. Big solutions can come at small cost – they have paid a one off £200 to add the Google Translate function to their website allowing their online content to be translated into whatever language their diverse population needs (not sure Wenglish is supported yet). I’ve since been told that NWIS can add in a Google Translate plug-in for free! Though how reliable that is I don’t know.
  5. Being flexible needn’t cost the Earth – Bristol has a mobile (device) friendly version of their website that is adaptive, clear and easy to understand. It cost just £4,000 to put in place.

Perhaps the biggest take away from our visit was the realisation that some of these things aren’t necessarily that hard to achieve.

Now I know that although we are joined by a very big bridge we do operate in very different environments. The competitive nature of the English NHS system means a great deal more value, and investment, is placed on the marketing side of communications.

But at its core the work boils down to the same thing – providing patients, staff and the public with good quality, useful information and promoting the important work that the organisation is doing.

The practicalities of these ideas may not be as straight forward when they are taken off the screen and dropped in to real life. But at the very least they will generate discussion and probably spawn some new ideas too.

179608098_91854b7775_zI think it goes to show the value in collaboration. Tim was able to share his views and advice enriched by the experience and exchange of ideas with a variety of colleagues and private sector companies. I wonder what price an external consultant would attach to sharing such advice?

I’m happy to share some of these ideas with you (though donations are always kindly accepted) and look forward to hearing your thoughts on what we can do with them.

But I have to admit, what really excites me is these robots delivering stuff around hospitals – beedee beedee beedee.

PS – I appreciate Buck Rogers references may be lost on some but any opportunity to quote ‘Twiki’ is not to be missed. Click here to hear him in action.