Jacob Prichard on comms fundamentals

Jacob Prichard on comms fundamentals
Jacob Prichard, deputy head of communications and engagement at Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS FT, shares his take on the fundamental skills of the comms professional.

Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?

After completing my business management degree at university, I knew that I wanted to move into the world of marketing as I enjoyed the creative side to the speciality. Following applying (unsuccessfully!) for several graduate scheme roles with large multi-national organisations, I fell into the world of communications in the NHS purely by coincidence. My initial thoughts when taking the role were that I could speak to people and send a few tweets out – it turns out there’s just a bit more to the job than that.

Although it wasn’t necessarily my initial career aspiration, it was absolutely a blessing in disguise and I couldn’t imagine doing anything different. 

What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?

For me, there are some fundamental key skills for any communications professional which can all fall under three overarching themes. Firstly, the ability to be able to get on with people, to understand their world, to be empathic and to build relationships. As storytellers, it’s our job to get to the core of any story and to do that requires the nous of knowing where to go for more information and the ability to bring people together.

Secondly, and I think the pandemic has demonstrated this in abundance, but you have to be flexible and adaptable to changing situations. The environment we work in, whether within our organisations or externally, is constantly changing and it’s important that as comms professionals, we are ahead of the game to give the most relevant advice and guidance to stakeholders. In a world that is sometimes hesitant to embrace change, comms colleagues need to be at the front to champion why this change is positive.

Finally, and building on from the above, is the ability to be proactive and on the front foot. We need to always be informed on the latest news, guidance or legislation. We need to look for angles where we can relate a story to the wider environmental context. We need to be pushing new solutions, ways of working, opportunities for partnerships and embracing creative channels so that we don’t stand still and are able to use data to predict how this will impact our stakeholders before the change has even happened. The more proactive we are, the more positive opportunities we create for our organisations (which does unfortunately ultimately mean more work for comms!)

What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?

The changing nature of our environment (as the NHS) and the sheer scale of our organisation are two of the biggest challenges we face on a near-daily basis.

Our staff are constantly pulled and pushed in different directions which sometimes makes it challenging to land messages at the right time. Our role is to understand the individual environments better and find ways that our communications can support colleagues rather than cause avoidable confusion.

Due to the scale of our organisation, there are always a significant number of changes that need to be communicated to the workforce at similar times. These can range from launching a new wellbeing initiative to the temporary closure of a staff car park. With every message being seen as equally important to the team aiming to communicate that message, managing expectations as well as priorities can be a challenge.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

Time. The nature of our role, particularly working in the NHS, means that a significant proportion of the day is spent being reactive. Sometimes, through the pressures of needing to get a message out or a project complete, a process for effectively planning or being creative gets pushed to the back seat. 

As a team, we are putting more emphasis on planning, research and carving out time in our diaries to give each other headspace for learning. The more this becomes the norm, the more likely it will become ingrained in everything that we do and thus, the more effective our communications will be. 

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

We are lucky that the value of communications has been recognised for several years at MKUH and we have a leadership team who really understand the strategic role that comms plays. That makes our job so much easier as we are given the freedom to be able to come up with the solutions and develop creative content to better communicate and engage with our stakeholder groups.

More widely, our organisation as a whole has really started to appreciate what comms is, how our team can help and the importance of getting us involved at an early stage. That shift from bringing comms in at the last minute has really changed over the last few years and the more projects we deliver successfully, the more others in the organisation start to realise where we can support them which is great.

I think sometimes as comms individuals and teams, we sometimes forget about the importance of ‘PR-ing’ ourselves and while we are a support function, the value of putting our name to a campaign has really helped to positively promote our highly skilled department. 

What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?

Take in everything around you and absorb like a sponge. The more we know, whether that be gathering insights from the organisation or researching the next big comms channel, the better advice, guidance and support we can offer. The intelligence comms can offer is second-to-none and the more we can demonstrate this knowledge, the more likely individuals will come to us for support.

Listening to your stakeholders is also so important. We can come up with the fanciest branding and the slickest assets but if it’s not something that works for your intended audience, there’s no point in doing it. We have to make sure that we listen and understand and make changes off the back of this feedback.

At React & Share, we’re obsessed with helping our clients measure and report their efforts - what measurements do you think comms teams should be presenting to internal stakeholders?

As we all know, data is key as it enables us to make evidence-based decisions about the content we post, the channel we post it on and the time that we post, among other things. This data is all really useful for maximising the reach of the content and for making the best use of the limited resources we have and as such, should not be ignored.

There is, however, a strong case for qualitative feedback and nothing is more satisfying that hearing someone say how that message, campaign or event helped them to achieve whatever the initial call to action or intended purpose was. That tangible, 'real-time’ feedback is great for improving our intelligence and helping to shape future comms activities. 

Finding the balance between the quantitative and qualitative feedback will deliver the most successful results and with anything, it’s important that this is then relayed back to the organisation as appropriate.

Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?

Facilitating effective engagement with teams as we shift towards more agile working practices. Traditionally, it was challenging enough to communicate and engage with all areas across the hospital and as more teams move to remote or hybrid working arrangements, ensuring that we involve these individuals is paramount for maintaining positive morale. In order to do this, there is an increased focus on reiterating our corporate values, ensuring that all individuals and teams are aligned in their objectives of achieving our overall strategic direction.