NHS Voices blogs

To change public perceptions of the NHS, we must commit to comms

Six suggested strategies to help break the cycle of negativity around the NHS.
Ross Laird

15 April 2024

With the seemingly endless stream of negative media stories, and the NHS being increasingly politicised ahead of the elections, NHS communicators must be supported to help break the cycle of negativity.

Poll after poll for years has shown the public’s support for the NHS. Yet, the latest British Social Attitudes survey has shown that public satisfaction is crumbling as quickly as services are struggling to meet demand since COVID-19. For communicators in the NHS and across the healthcare sector, this creates major challenges. 

Firefighting in NHS comms

Increasingly, NHS communications teams are having to react to negative stories about waiting lists, lack of GP appointments or cancelled operations, hindering opportunities to communicate the many positive news stories about staff, recent successes or new facilities. All too often we hear that these teams are stretched and firefighting as fresh concerns about local health services materialise. 

This is being exacerbated by a lack of resources for communications departments. Just like other parts of the NHS, these departments have not been immune to budget cuts. Over a quarter of those in the recent NHS Communicate survey referred to staff budget cuts and over a third reported cuts to their wider budgets. 

Politicising the NHS

A more sceptical public will feed political stakeholder complaints. Healthcare is becoming increasingly politicised ahead of the elections.  Just this week we’ve seen shadow health secretary Wes Streeting reject the idea that paying privately for quicker access to healthcare is in any way a ‘betrayal’ of NHS ideology. Politicians are readily criticising local NHS services, magnifying problems and creating a negative news cycle. For PR managers, there’s no quick fix.

However, I believe there are six strategies for success. 

  • Firstly, the NHS needs to maximise the PR resource that it has at its disposal. Networking its PR departments across trusts and boards.  
  • Secondly, AI can bring productivity benefits. The benefits of AI are still not being fully realised in many PR departments. 
  • The profession itself needs to become a more attractive place to work to attract talent. For example through the application of better diversity and inclusion strategies to ensure our communications departments reflect the populations they serve. 
  • Buy in talent and expertise – in a strategic way. PR consultancy services can bring not only much-needed additional capacity, but also expertise when it matters most, such as addressing crisis issues. 
  • Don’t ignore your political stakeholders. In a negative news cycle, it is vital to ensure all political stakeholders have access to regular factual information, especially in an election year. 
  • Finally, PR managers across the NHS need a voice at the top table. Without direct access to the CEOs, senior managers and chairs, PR managers will invariably have to react to events, rather than prepare the groundwork and find creative solutions.  

Good communications in healthcare need not cost a lot, but it does require commitment from the top, a total commitment to diversity and inclusion to attract the top talent, and a flexible mindset. It may take some time for positive public attitudes to the NHS to return, so PR departments need to be prepared for the long-haul and get into shape now.

Ross Laird is director of communications agency Grayling. You can follow Ross on LinkedIn or on X (formerly Twitter) @RossLaird55. 

The NHS Confederation, NHS Providers and the Centre for Health Communications Research published a joint report in March 2024, The State of NHS Communications. This was produced in partnership with Grayling.