Thinking about proper, practical strategy for NHS communicators

One of my absolute highlights of the past year has been the opportunity to work with NHS communicators on a post grad course run by NHS Improvement and the Centre for Health and Communications Research.

It’s met lots of needs for me. A chance to reconnect with issues around NHS comms. And an opportunity to consolidate some ideas I’ve had for a while about the uneasiness and potential cross over between digital transformation projects and communications.

These two are often uneasy bedfellows, but I really think there’s an opportunity to bridge a perceived gap by employing testing, iteration and open working in the development of communications projects.

I think it landed well with the 30 or so NHS communicators I’ve met so far. We certainly had a lot of fun completing the exercises, and all in the genteel surroundings of Missenden Abbey.

Here are the slides:

NHS CHCR slides v2_compressed

Missenden Abbey
Missenden Abbey – rural setting makes a change from the usual conference suites

The first 4 months of 2019




Building confidence in a digital world

On a sunny day in Brighton 2 years ago Steph, Chris and I, with input from the rest of the team, made quite an important decision to put capability building at the core of all our client work.

Instead of building websites that sometimes go unloved or are born out of ‘launch and forget’ briefs, we’d challenge clients to do more continuous improvement of their sites, through testing, looking at data and careful crafting of content. Luke was already helping clients do this very successfully with their intranets.

Rather than tentatively help companies do paint-by-numbers social media, we’d push them to actively engage with customers: front up to the things they’d done wrong, listen and acknowledge complaints, and generally be more credible online.

And rather than deliver strategies that depending on a few good people in a digital corner to deliver, we’d focus clients’ attention on the skills and confidence of individuals in the business, from the CEO down. Or in many cases, from the customer service centre up.

Now our strapline says ‘building confidence in a digital world’.

We decided on capability building because:

a) it’s more rewarding to deliver the right thing once, than win repeat business year after year that ends up being the same set of unresolved challenges

b) we wanted to work as one team and have a shared appreciation of each other’s crafts and experience

A range of skills and experience

We were, and still are, a real mixed bag of skills and experience. From back-end web developers to front-end designers, user-obsessed project managers to former comms people delivering crisis response training.

I believe this gives us the right spread of skills, expertise and interests, to help a variety of clients build their confidence and experience, in-house. It also means that we can talk with authority about the link between, say, dark sites and crisis response, or social media engagement and how this fits with users’ wider online behaviours.

Clients haven’t baulked at this approach and we’ve delivered a few really interesting projects that combine a number of different skills from across the team. For example digital strategy reviews, which encompass owned web estate as well as other earned channels.

Building confidence internally

However, I’m not convinced we’ve actually sold the range of things we do to anyone, yet. People find us through one of a few ways, and usually because they already have a specific need, or are interested in one of our training platforms.

That makes it a tricky shift for everyone on the team. I’ve learned that colleagues like to work for a brand or product, with a specific deliverable. Trying to start each project with a cold, hard assessment of needs, rather than a menu of products or services, can be strangely overwhelming.

It takes a dose of brave pills to stand in front of a client and say:

‘you’ve asked for an intense, advanced crisis simulation, but actually we’ve looked at your current work and feel some more basic classroom training is required, first.’


‘we could close up that white space, but we think it might be more beneficial for you to join us for some user testing, so you can see where the design is performing well’

But if we’re to build a diverse business that is Helpful for clients, then we need to be flexible about the products and services that we deliver.

As a team of 11 it’d be easy at this stage to start falling into awkward silos, but this is exactly the right time to be avoiding all of those and continuing to shape a Helpful proposition for our clients.



Celebrating the how, not the what

To mangle a famous quote:

I’m not always able to say who we delivered projects for, but I counted them all out and I counted them all back.

In the rush to hit deadlines and find time for the next project it’s easy to forget about the achievements. And the past few weeks have been full of those, thanks to an energetic team at Helpful.

I think I could get away with blogging about each of the projects below, but the specific brief isn’t the point. More often than not, the outputs are straight-forward to deliver, it’s untangling the organisation that demands patience, diplomacy and hard work.

Take a bow @kate_rawlins_ @alasdairdick and @claireturner18, who between them have managed to:

1. Persuade, train and guide a senior public servant, who works in a controversial service, on to social media. This was done while simultaneously negotiating a staff union and significant hardware and network challenges (as in there was precious little of either).

2. Step in to a live emergency response at short notice, putting a lot of our models, theory and training to the test.

3. Deliver a school classroom training platform, to inspire children in to careers in marketing and communications. The catch? We’re not delivering the sessions, so that platform had to work out-of-the-box, for non-techies. And it did.

4. Bring together a dispersed corporate comms team, with little confidence in their digital skills, and no experience, and have them producing video on Instagram and Facebook by the end of the day.

None of these are particularly exciting clients or projects in the conventional sense, but their needs are as great as many other complex organisations I’ve come across.

Working through those complexities and meeting needs is worth celebrating on its own.

Hypnobirthing for Dads

Prior to my daughter being born in February 2017, we signed up for a hypnobirthing course, as a couple, to prepare us for pregnancy, birth and the first few months.

Actually we signed up to quite a few things. As Dad, I was interested to read a few books and thought NCT was probably something to tolerate rather than look forward to. I’d had a chat with a few mates who are long-standing Dads and picked up some tips. I’m afraid to say hypnobirthing was definitely something I was tolerating for my partner’s sake.

But I couldn’t have been more wrong: it was the single best piece of preparation we took on. In fact, it was one of the best learning experiences I’ve had for a long time.

I’m not sure where the ‘hypno’ bit comes from. Don’t let that put you off. There are no swinging pocket watches.

Hypnobirthing is about understanding all the choices available to you, as a couple, during pregnancy and birth. It isn’t about forcing anyone to have waterbirths at home, or calling the child Sky or Spirit.

Winnie Westoby-Lloyd
Mouth-open air guitar pose

Hypnobirthing carves out quality time to prepare for birth, free of distractions and focussed on good practice and sensible, evidence-based advice.

I found NCT and NHS session a little chaotic as facilitators tried to keep up with ever-changing guidelines. Hypnobirthing simplified all that.

Most importantly:

  • it gave me a role as the partner, to provide really practical support. Things like massage for Mum, making sure the birth environment was quiet and calm.
  • some useful meditative practice, like better breathing (yes, for Dads too).
  • gave me an understanding of the NHS’s needs and how to meet these without compromising our plans
  • gave us options to consider. You can practice hypnobirthing, even with a C-section in hospital. Hypnobirthing is an approach, not a fixed process
  • this was a much more structured experience, than picking through a barrage of book and YouTube recommendations

If you’re a Dad-to-be, hypnobirthing is one of the single best investments of time and money you can both make during pregnancy. Take my word, as a cynic-turned-advocate.

Our hypnobirthing instructor was Bev Samways at Small Acorn. She was brilliant for us. I understand from other Dads that different instructors have different styles, so be sure to pick someone who’s right for you.

Getting better at training

From a recent proposal I wrote for some training projects:

We practice Collaborative Communication (based on Non-Violent Communication), to ensure that we make time to listen to the needs of participants, without making judgements, and are clear with our requests of them.

I think the client were mainly looking for information about our track record, handing out sweets to participants and what we’ll do if someone oversleeps. But I was keen, and proud, to include this too.

Training can be boutique, tailored, 121. Call it what you will. But it’s never personal unless we make the time to listen with intent, to what people need.