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Slaying sacred cows

19 February 2014
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Whatever your political standpoint, your personal experiences or how much importance you place on providing a ‘free at point of delivery’ health service, one thing is certain: the current model of the NHS is not sustainable. As a recent Kings Fund report stated: “If increases in spending on the NHS continue at the current rate over the next 50 years the NHS could be swallowing nearly one-fifth of the UK’s entire GDP.”

The problem is that change isn’t easy. No one has the magic pill to fix the NHS woes and few can agree on what is the best way forward, with many organisations such as Forster’s client the Health Foundation investing a great deal of research and expertise to assess the impact of the latest restructuring of the health service.  As time passes and more radical healthcare reforms get underway many health sector organisations are facing big communications challenges.

Cuts, closures and structural changes will always face resistance, even if they will ultimately benefit the very people opposed to them. This is an intimidating task for the communications team. How do you maintain public support when changing service delivery? And how can you do this when your communications budgets are likely to have been cut as well?

The first priority is to build your audience understanding and, importantly, to prioritise audiences. Trying to communicate difficult changes to ‘everyone,’ with one set of messages is unlikely to work. You will be unable to pin-point specific barriers in accepting change and messages will be diluted. Write down who the different audiences are. Prioritise by level of influence and pattern the likely criticisms per group in order to develop communications messages. This level of focus will also help to limit resources needed.

Secondly, think about your messages. Try to evidence and substantiate as much as possible: look for facts and figures; look for the human interest angle. Case studies of real people who will be affected by the changes are powerful. You can use third party voices to show different views and to quell anxieties. This detail helps to communicate the bigger picture of why the change is needed. It also helps place the emphasis on the facts of what is happening rather than who has decided upon it.

Finally, lead with a strong voice and ideally a highly-informed, charismatic and media trained Chief Executive. A quote from ‘a spokesperson’ or a ‘communications officer,’ lacks gravitas and seems impersonal. It reflects nervousness and/or a lack of concern which can open the door to criticism.

Changes to service delivery will continue in the bid to maintain a sustainable health service. Communications teams need to be ready to play a central role in maintaining audience support.