RED LIGHT: Why be a comms person in the NHS if you can’t stop a bleed?


In the worst half hour of my life, my wife struggled to give birth to our first born whose heart kept stopping.

It was too late for cesarean. The baby needed to be born right now. Two mid-wives shouted at my wife to ‘push’ as the heart monitor dipped in and out. Within half an hour he was. Why the crisis? A perfect knot in the umbilical chord had been blocking oxygen.

Thank God for the NHS. Without them my son may not be here.

So when the Daily Telegraph run an NHS knocking story from a right-wing pressure group about a comms issue I paid attention.

Every hospital, the piece said, must change its logo and online footprint at what is a time of crisis for the NHS. ‘What a waste,’ was the underlying tone. Even a pro-NHS Facebook group got caught up slamming the changes as ‘shameful.’

Blogger James Turner wrote an excellent takedown of the Daily Telegraph story from a designers perspective. No, all signs don’t have to be changed straight away. In summary:

YES: The NHS has new identity guidelines which include new rules on how the logo should be used.

NO: No one has to spend money updating signs, letters etc until they were going to be changed anyway.

YES: It did cost some money to NHS England

NO: It didn’t cost money to Trusts and was infact, a pretty cheap exercise considering what design can cost.

YES: Design is important to the NHS, it’s what helps people access services and engage with healthcare.

NO: Design isn’t a “non-job” you patronising arse.

What’s the point of a NHS comms officer if they can’t stop a bleed?

For me, this raises the wider problem. Should you have an A&E nurse or a designer?

Or, as someone asked on Facebook, why have an NHS designer if they can’t stop a bleed?

Faced with such a simple question, you can see why people think what they do.

But life and death is a much more complicated than that.

In the NHS, there are 450,000 doctors and nurses. Supporting them is an army of people. Porters, medical secretaries, cleaners, finance people and receptionists are just a few of the army of people needed to make an organisation work.

What’s the point of an NHS porter if they can’t stop a bleed?

What’s the point of a housing web manager if they can’t change a window?

Or what’s the point in a council press officer if they can’t fill in a pothole?

I’ll tell you what their point is. They play a part in in making the organisation work just like a porter or a finance person does. But I think comms people need to make people see this.

The simple fact is that communications, marketing, web people and yes, designers are needed. Why? Forget reputation for a minute. Because they can help make a difference to people’s lives and to the bottom line. The Come Back to Nursing campaign to re-recruit lapsed nurses my colleague Darren Caveney played a part in helped save £90 million, for example. The flu jab campaign helps save people’s lives.

Be the difference and tell people

‘You’re just a bunch of non-jobs. Why should I bother doing what you say?’

This cheery greeting came when I worked in local government. The then minister Eric Pickles had made another attack on local government communications.

I’ve said this before. The only way to dispel this falsehood is by demonstrating worth. Not just by making nice things but by making a difference in the bottom line. So, it’s not enough to have a logo or communications. It needs to show the pounds, shillings and pence difference that it makes. That campaign to get people to go to the chemist rather than A&E. Look at data over different periods. Can you say how many people did that? And what the benefit was?

NHS branding? Why bother? It’s a sensible question. Here’s six reasons.

You can cut down on missed appointments. Missed appointments cost the NHS £1 billion a year. My mother-in-law gets post from a range of people. If it doesn’t have an NHS logo she doesn’t know the letter is from the GP or NHS Trust. If it does she’ll leave it on the mantlepiece so my wife can make sure the appointment is on her calender. As a result she doesn’t miss an appointment costing the NHS money. That’s branding.

Finding the right place in a really big building… part one. I had a sad episode in a hospital three weeks ago. I got the phonecall at 11pm and travelled 30 miles to a hospital I didn’t know in a town I wasn’t familiar with. Bleary-eyed I knew I was getting to the right place by the hospital’s NHS branding and the clear lettering that pointed me towards A&E. There’s a reason that NHS branding is as it is. Same as British Railway typography. It’s clear, authoritative and you get the information you need from a glance. That’s branding.

Finding the right place in a really big building… part two. Hospitals are big places at the best of times. Sure, if you work there you know where it is and how it works. I’m struck by how the thought that goes into the NHS typeface can help signpost people clearly. If it’s doing that job quietly it means it’s not people turning up late for appointments or accosting staff in the corridor more than they do. That’s also branding.

Getting your message out. Your comms team have a job to communicate to people a big raft of messages. Having the templates and approaches laid out means that they’re job is easier. The have the tools and people who they want to talk to can know straight away that its the NHS trying to talk to them. That’s branding.

It saves cheaper to have one lot of branding Here’s a thing. In the NHS there are 242 separate trusts, providers and social enterprises. At £10k a pop that could be £2.42 million which I’m guessing the NHS doesn’t have. That’s branding.

It’s professional. The NHS has 1.3 million staff. They are often highly skilled professional people who do an amazing job. Not having decent branding can make the operation look a bit amateurish, to be honest. I think the people who work in the NHS deserve better.

It would be wrong to think the NHS is unique in needing to talk about the benefit of good communications. If you work in the public sector you need to tackle that question too. And make sure people in your organisation know why you do what you do.


Picture credit:  WP Paarz / Flickr

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