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  • Ann-Christin Korsing

How internal communication works in the NHS Gateshead – 10 Questions for the Head of Communications

An Interview with Ross Wigham – Head of Communications and Marketing for the Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust

In my search for Thoughts About PR, I recently approached PR practitioners across the North East to get their professional insight. I met Ross Wigham at a PR Networking Event at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland and subsequently interviewed him about:

  • What internal communications can do to overcome crises,

  • Why nurses are the ideal representatives and

  • How to reach busy audiences in a hospital environment.

He admits that communication can hardly reach every single stakeholder, but reveals an approach that works towards reaching nearly everyone.

This month, he celebrates five years being Head of Communications and Marketing for the Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust (also known as QE Gateshead), which employs around 3,400 staff and currently provides 580 hospital beds across Gateshead. The focus is on providing health services to the local community complemented by key specialist areas including Gynaecology, maternity, palliative care and old age psychiatry. Ross Wigham, who also writes his own blog, works on communication with internal and external stakeholders.

1.) On your blog you write that the NHS is “perhaps the ultimate people business”. What are the stakeholders you deal with in your internal communication?

“In our internal comms we have to consider a very wide range of stakeholders. Our workforce is made up of not only people working in the hospital, but also many remote workers such as community nurses and district nurses who visit people in their own home. It’s also a very diverse workforce made up of everyone from surgeons to gardeners and maintenance workers. In fact there are more than 350 different roles in the NHS, so we need to use language that is accessible to everyone and a range of different channels that are convenient to each part of the workforce”.

2.) Interestingly, you also admit that “Nobody is perfect” and that “No comms team (no matter how big or high profile) knows everything that’s going on”. As the various internal stakeholders all have different jobs, work loads, departments and locations, how do you make sure to reach almost everyone in the NHS Foundation Trust internally?

“Reaching everyone is of course very difficult and I don’t think anyone is able to guarantee that. But we try and use a mixed media approach so that as many people as possible can access key messages in a way that suits them best. Last year we completed a survey to help identify the best channels and adapted our offering. This now includes a team briefing from line managers, a weekly newsletter, blogs, screensavers, 60 second videos, intranet, social media and our new smartphone app which launches soon. There’s also something about making the information interesting and accessible which is why we created a new editorial policy for internal comms that tries to reduce the volume of information and priorities need to know stories”.

“Nurses are the ideal spokespeople”

3.) In our conversation at the networking event you also said that the most valuable internal influencers you work with are nurses, because they are very sensitive communicators, as they have to deliver the best news of the day “Congratulations, it’s a girl!” or the worst messages “I am really sorry for your loss”. In which way are you cooperating with nurses to deliver messages internally to important stakeholders?

“We work really closely with the nursing teams (particularly matrons) to get advice, support and the inside track on the real issues facing the organisation. This is mainly through personal relationships. Also the Edelman Trust index places nurse as the number 1 trusted profession by the public so they are the ideal spokespeople. That is why we have a nurse fronting most of our external publicity”.

4.) Doctors and nurses are internal stakeholders that are constantly under pressure because of the nature of their jobs. What are you doing for the internal audiences that are too busy to read your messages?

“The 60 second videos, team briefings (which identify the top 5 priorities each month) and the new app are designed to help with this”.

“A staff app will soon be available to download”
Ross Wigham winning an award for internal communications. (Picture with courtesy of Comms2point0 unawards)
Ross Wigham winning an award for internal communications. (Picture with courtesy of Comms2point0 unawards)

5.) What are new internal communication tools you are looking forward to explore in the next year?

“Probably the smartphone app. It means staff can now access all the latest news and updates, no matter where they are, at whatever time they like. Following on from our Internal Communications survey, we are thrilled to have expanded our Internal Communication channels in the form of MY QE, a staff app, making it easier for staff across the Trust to access news right at their fingertips. MY QE includes all the latest Trust news, updates, blogs, resources and jobs making sure you can connect with everyone no matter where you are. The app will soon be available to download from the App store and Google Play, simply type in MY QE and click download. You will then need to register with your email address, a code will then be generated and sent to your email which will allow you access to the app”.

“I have tried to build up a big support network of different staff”

6.) When we met you told me that you had little knowledge about the NHS before you started. On your blog you write: “You will never understand the business unless you know how the frontline works so as a comms person you need to get out there and spend time with them”. How did you ensure to dive deep enough into the company’s structure to learn about the internal audiences sufficiently?

“That’s right and I think it’s an evolving thing. You always have to be learning. Part of that is reading and keeping up to date with all the latest blogs and networks. The rest is about getting out and about and learning what everyone does. I have tried to build up a big support network of different staff across the organisation and I also try and spend back the floor days with various people so I can keep in touch”.

7.) On your LinkedIn profile you write that you have developed a new, high level communications strategy for the communication of the Trust, which has seen increased profile, better engagement and national media coverage for the organisation. What was the strategy about?

“When I first started here the first task was to take three months to audit everything we did and look at what the organisation needed. My new strategy focused on driving the best possible results for the NHS in Gateshead through modern, proactive communications. Part of this was launching new channels and changing the way we work, but some of it was about creating clear priorities for us to follow so that work was targeted and effective”.

“Being open and honest is crucial”

8.) On your blog you write “With the NHS struggling to recruit the volume of staff needed and hospitals facing large increases in demand (around 5% in our organisation this year alone) proactive and responsive internal comms are becoming more important than ever before”. The NHS faces many difficulties, such as trouble in recruiting enough staff or Brexit, which brings financial challenges. How did you approach these two obstacles in your internal communications plan?

“Recruitment is such a big one not just for the operational reasons I outlined, but also to give staff reassurance and confidence that we are doing something. We worked with the lead nurse for recruitment to develop a big communications plan to support this focusing on our USP of being a really friendly, supportive place to work".

9.) You also know that employees might be suspicious of authority according to measures like the Edelman trust barometer. How do you ensure to maintain trust internally?

“By being authentic, using the right spokespeople and building trust over a long period of time. This sounds twee but being open and honest is crucial”.

10.) You also write on your blog: “One of the easiest ways to find out if your channels to staff are hitting the mark is to ask them”. Hence, you surveyed all employees of the QE Gateshead last year and were surprised by some of the answers, but it resulted in a framework to make improvements. Besides surveys, in what other ways do you measure your success in the internal communication to make sure that you are on the right track?

“We regularly survey staff, provide contact details on all comms so people can provide feedback, gather statistics on all channels and compare ourselves against other organisations via the national NHS Staff survey”.

A big thank you goes to Ross Wigham. The QE Gateshead can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. To find out more about ThoughtsAboutPR, head over to my Twitter account @ThoughtsAboutPR and follow me on Instagram @Thoughts_About_PR.

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