Tom Gurney on delivering insights to an organisation

Tom Gurney on delivering insights to an organisation
Tom Gurney, executive director of Communications and Public Involvement at Sussex Health and Care Partnership, joins us to chat about his journey into comms and the importance of insight.

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

I have always been interested in people and how we interact with each other but it was only when I went into communications that I realised how much I love it. I was originally a journalist but, after deciding that was not for me, I chose to go into NHS comms and have never looked back. What really appeals with communications is the fact it doesn’t have an end point and there is no single way of doing it effectively, so you have to constantly improve, adapt and develop to meet the needs of the people you are communicating with. I have broadened out into other areas during my career – I also led HR and OD for a while – but it is communications and engagement that is my real passion.

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

The main attributes I think you need is empathy and courage. The ability to understand how other people feel and see the world is so important in knowing how they need to be engaged with, how they will perceive and receive information and the actions that need to be taken to stimulate change or mitigate against any risk. This requires communications professionals to have good emotional intelligence and to be tuned in to the values of the organisation, the staff who work within it and the people you are there to serve externally. You also need courage to try new things, to speak truth to power and to champion the perspectives, experiences and expectations of internal and external audiences to ensure they are being heard and met.

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 main challenge is the size and scope of the agenda. As an enabling function, communications and engagement is involved, or potentially involved, in virtually everything which means it is easy to lose sight of your priorities and where you are going to add most value. It is important you don’t just become an implementer of other people’s asks and wants, you need to take a leadership role and to be clear on where your sphere of influence is and how you can work in the most effective way. Working in the NHS, the biggest challenge over the last 18 months has naturally been the response to COVID. Getting the communications right has, at times, been a matter of life and death in some situations, and it has been so important not to lose sight of what you are trying to achieve and what the audience has needed. I have been so proud of how NHS comms across the country has risen to the challenge during the pandemic and proved just how vitally important our profession is.  

What one thing would make your working life easier?

Consistency of priorities, policy and focus. Working in the NHS, everything is important, which makes prioritisation very difficult. We also work at different levels – national, regional, system, and organisational – and the political and media scrutiny in very intense. This means the spotlight and focus on priorities, improvements and issues changes constantly and that makes it hard to work strategically from a communications and engagement point of view. It is easy to get sucked into SOS (“Send Out Stuff”) comms without reflecting on the value it is adding and how it supports strategic priorities. You therefore need to find a balance of being responsive and reactive to the ever-changing nature of the environment we are working in, as well as proactive and aligned to agreed workplans.

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

Communications and engagement is very much seen as a strategic function in my organisation. I am part of the Executive team and no one questions whether my portfolio should be on par with other functions such as finance, quality, and strategy. I know I am fortunate in that respect as it is not the same everywhere. That is down to two things – first the leadership respects and understands the value of communications and engagement and secondly, I am not backwards in telling anyone who will listen that they should treat it that way!

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

Three P’s - you need to plan, be perceptive, and be proactive. In doing so, you can then cut through the noise, drama, and complexities that we work within and focus on what really matters. We live in an increasingly hectic world, where information is non-stop, and issues, risks and opportunities seemingly fly at you in all directions. So it is so important that you have a plan in place, you fully understand the situation you are working in from all angles and you get ahead of things by taking action in a positive and fearless way.

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?

The most valuable currency we have in communications and engagement is insight. We have the unique ability to collate and understand the perceptions, experiences and views of internal and external stakeholders and present it to the organisation in a way that can shape decision-making, how we behave, and how we all work. We are the eyes and ears of the organisation, as well as the mouth, which makes us such an important strategic function so we need to do more to report insight and feedback. This can be done in a lot of different ways – such as feedback and insight reports, reputational risk registers, and qualitative and quantitative data. I think it is important that reporting internally should never be about trying to justify your existence as a comms function, which I have seen happen in some organisations, it should be about adding strategic value, highlighting risks and issues and influencing positive change.

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

I think behaviour science will play a much bigger role in communications in the future. It is not new, but I am surprised with how little we really use data, research and insight of how people behave to drive and influence what we do in comms. The outcomes we want to achieve is almost always about trying to change people’s behaviour – either physically or cognitively – but I don’t think we have really scratched the surface in doing that effectively, especially in the public sector.