Ross Wigham on change, disruption and why frontline staff should be at the heart of NHS comms

Ross Wigham on change, disruption and why frontline staff should be at the heart of NHS comms
Ross Wigham presents a strong case for frontline staff to be at the forefront of NHS comms and discusses the toughest year in his career to date.

Ross Wigham is chair of the national NHS providers #CommsLeads network and deputy director at Northumbria Healthcare NHS FT. Before this, Ross was head of communications and marketing at Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust. Prior to joining the NHS, he ran communications for one of the biggest local authorities in the country. He is also an experienced journalist and blogger, having spent a decade in London working for trade publications and later developing content for organisations such as Sony, HSBC and BusinessLink. 

Read on to learn more about Ross' views on resilience in the public sector, and uncover why he believes that objectives, strategy, tactics (OST) should be a tattooed reminder.

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

I got my first job in 1999 and since then have been a journalist, copywriter, freelancer and public sector communicator so it’s probably true to say I’m around halfway through (give or take a few years). I didn’t actively choose to move into communication’s but it felt a natural journey as time unfolded.

The pace of change and disruption since then has been like an industrial revolution which has been felt even more in the past year or so. In thinking back over my past two decades at work it’s easy to identify all the big changes, but one of the things that strikes me most looking back over that time is how many of the communications fundamentals have actually stayed the same.

What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important for a communications role? Why these skills/attributes in particular? 

I think it probably varies by organisation and sector but there are a few things that stand out to me:

  • There’s an awful lot of guff talked about our industry, but the ability to work out how to best communicate with all your audiences and tell the right story is still at the very heart of what we do.
  • Objectives, strategy, tactics (OST) should be a tattooed reminder.
  • There’s an absolute beauty in simplicity, which is why it’s so hard. So often people try to overcomplicate things and end up making the work so much poorer for it.
  • Like reputation, flexibility and resilience are hard built and quickly lost.
  • The big challenge now is understanding how we can tell the right stories about our organisations locally that our audiences will find useful, interesting and inspiring.
  • While you need to be able to lead, you must also take people with you and that’s a really tricky balance at times.
  • You’ll also need some resilience, especially in a public sector role. While it’s not coal mining it can be very tough and – as we’ve seen during covid – the comms team can often be in the firing line at the heart of the organisation.
  • Have a strong sense of purpose before doing anything. Why are we here? What does the organisation want or need?
  • Don’t try to do everything. Good strategy is the choice of one path over another
  • The NHS is the ultimate people business and your frontline staff are the stars. Their work should be at the heart of a comms strategy.

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

I think the last year or so has probably been the most challenging ever for NHS communicators. Certainly in my career, it’s been the toughest year. I think we can all agree that this has been a pretty terrible year, punctuated by some fantastic good news about the vaccine programme.

The NHS has been rightly lauded and as chair of the NHS Providers comms leads network I want to again say a huge thank you to NHS comms colleagues right across the whole country for the amazing work of the past 12 months.

While we’re all keen to be positive and optimistic I think there’s a growing recognition that there are still some very hard days ahead for the NHS and some real challenges falling out of the pandemic and recovery.

There’s no shortage of challenges around managing expectations, recovering the backlog of work cancelled because of covid, a growing mental health crisis, possible financial downturn, the spectre of Brexit and of course the ongoing pandemic.

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation? 

We’re lucky to have a very supportive board who really invest in communications and understand how vital it is to engage with the public and staff.

At React & Share, we’re obsessed with measuring our efforts to prove our worth to internal stakeholders - what measurements do you think comms teams should be presenting to their board?

Metrics and measurement are absolutely vital in gathering intelligence but also managing the effectiveness of your work. This is probably an obvious tip but it’s also important to think about how you will communicate the evaluation to the rest of the organisation. We do a weekly dashboard as well as monthly and quarterly reporting across a wide range of metrics. This is shared not only with our senior team but with everyone across our organisation. We employ more than 12,000 staff and everyone gets the chance to see how we’re communicating and what the key measures are.

What advice would you give to those at the start of their career in communications? 

At the moment it must be incredibly tough for people starting out because of the situation we find ourselves in. There’s something important about being proactive and organised while always doing what you say you will do.

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

I’m not sure there is one. If you’re happy and the people you work for are happy then you are doing something right!