The power of storytelling in health service communications

About the author

Phil Simon prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

The story of the first person in the UK to receive the Covid vaccine. Google image search.
The story of the first person in the UK to receive the Covid vaccine. Google image search.
Phil Simon
Phil Simon

NHS communicators are busy folk. Not simply press officers as some assume, they are responsible for sharing important information with patients, making sure public health messages land with the right people, supporting research, managing the reputation of our health service, and telling staff about all manner of things from the latest PPE regulations to how a new patient record system will help deliver better care.

They do all this and more across multiple channels: websites, social media, intranets, forums, events, staff rooms. Whether it’s a Trust, ICB, acute or mental health organisation, they work with all teams, clinical services, and departments. They are, in short, key influencers in terms of the health of the nation.

NHS communicators are key influencers in terms of the health of the nation.

NHS communications departments are also in high demand, with increasing workloads that cover business as usual and projects aimed at internal and external audiences. Indeed the most recent state of the profession report from the CIPR showed that 57% working in-house in the public sector reported working unpaid overtime. Something I’ve seen with my own eyes as a result of this demand is that too often a message can be rushed out at the expense of strategic planning or consideration of the tactics or channel that would be best used; and when something is rushed out proper evaluation of its impact can be neglected, meaning communicators miss opportunities to properly hear back from their audiences.

Building storytelling into your team’s tactical repertoire can be an antidote to this, helping to make sure that every message has a clear source and action associated with it.

Communications teams vary in size at provider organisations, but they are frequently small (around four people including a manager) and usually all work across roles that traditionally were held by different people (for example press officer, graphic designer, content writer).

All this means that NHS communicators need to be agile, working at pace to keep on top of the business as usual while delivering incredible stories that enhance the reputation of their organisation. To do this they need to be trusted and able to act autonomously, managing their own workloads and being able to seek out stories that deliver messages in engaging ways.

The key word here is ‘stories’. Telling stories on behalf of an organisation can do wonderful things.

Stories influence what people think, they can persuade people to take an action, they can be used to find common ground or build relationships, and they offer a method to package information in a way that is emotive and memorable.

As an example from healthcare, just look at the way that, two years ago now, covid-19 vaccines were launched in the UK. The focus was not the number of vaccines being produced or their make up (though that information was clearly communicated), it was the story about Margaret Keenan (known as Maggie), the first person to be vaccinated against the virus in the UK. The press release issued by NHS England led with information about Maggie and her family and by doing this it framed the new availability of covid-19 vaccines as something hopeful, that would lead to the end of lockdowns and the ability to see friends and family again. Margaret’s story was thus used to influence people to take an action further down the line: to get vaccinated themselves.

It is interesting then that the NHS England Communications plan toolkit for flu vaccines does not mention storytelling at all, though it lists many desired outcomes that could be achieved through telling stories.

In Autumn 2020, before covid-19 vaccines were available, I was tasked with developing and implementing the communications to drive flu vaccine uptake among staff at the NHS Trust I work at. Uptake had been historically low (among the worst in the country) and so we needed to talk to our staff about vaccines in a way that persuaded them that they should have one. We improved a lot of simple things that made it easier to find out how to get a vaccine, however it was the stories that we told that helped to keep up momentum after the initial buzz might have normally died down. We had our vaccinators (who were all nurses from the Trust and so well-known and respected) talk on video about their reasons for supporting the campaign, and we told the organisation’s story of success by sharing weekly updates on our uptake.

The results of this were incredibly positive. In the context, most people in late 2020 were very ready and willing to take up the offer of a vaccine for a respiratory illness, however we didn’t just improve our uptake among staff compared to previous years, we ranked as the top performing mental health Trust in our region. Storytelling was a key component in framing flu vaccines in a way that made them desirable to people.

Storytelling also offers opportunities for dialogue and sharing of information between audiences and organisations. Another example, this time from a charity I used to work for, was a digital memorial for parents of babies who had died before or shortly after birth. The charity offered parents the space to share a short message about their baby in return for a donation, thus creating a lasting online memorial. When planning the project it was questioned whether the mechanics were too transactional and that parents (the charity’s main stakeholders) would see it as an attempt to make money from their grief. This fear ultimately proved unfounded. The parents in question were happy to donate money to a cause they saw the value of; and the act of sharing their stories strengthened their relationship with the charity. It also provided the charity with first hand testimonies about the experiences of its primary group of stakeholders from which would inform subsequent projects and campaigns. The platform has become a key fundraising channel for the organisation and has been used in different iterations since.

For those reading this who work in or manage an NHS communications team, you might be wondering how, with a broad and busy workload, NHS communicators can carve out the time to tell those stories to make sure they are engaging the right people with the right messages in a way that makes a positive impact for the people they serve?

Many communications teams are turning to new ways of working to manage the content they produce (and the stories they tell) to make sure those stories define the identity of an organisation to its stakeholders and audiences.

Topic-based strategic communication (TSC) helps organisations decide what stories are important and what reflects them.

TSC seeks to consider content first and the channel second. It is born out of a need for corporate communications teams to target stakeholder’s needs in the digital world that has driven many organisations to become media companies themselves.

It can also help to categorise topics to ensure the projects being communicated are prioritised in line with an organisation’s values and objectives. My own team has started to enact some of the elements of TSC and it is proving useful to prioritise projects and develop stories out of key workstreams, as well as to consider the value those stories have to our stakeholders. It doesn’t always take less time, but it has helped us to prioritise the special projects and the business as usual and to locate where the most exciting, relevant things are happening for us to communicate.

Because NHS communicators tend to have broad skill sets, they are well placed to become storytellers of their institutions rather than mechanical sharers of information or experts in the technical elements of digital channels.

Telling stories benefits the NHS, the people who work there and the people it serves because by doing so we stop talking about ‘clinical operations’ or other jargon and start telling the human side of what’s happening and engage with people on an emotional level.