CIPR Health: Chris Hopson on the role of communications and the boardroom

By Claire Routh, Mid and South Essex Health and Care Partnership.

I was invited to attend this webinar by a lovely colleague and CIPR Health committee member, Katherine Raven. Being mid-way through an assignment about the role of strategic communications as part of a postgraduate course, courtesy of the Centre for Health Communications Research, the timing was incredibly apt.

Having scrabbled to find a way to overcome NHS barriers of using Zoom, I finally managed to log in.  I was pleased to hear conversation had quickly turned to how communications colleagues can move beyond being functional specialists to adding strategic value.

Cue Chris Hopson, Chief Executive, NHS Providers who discussed the ‘leap’ from moving beyond transactional aspects of communications to a clear demonstration of the value of communications to deliver organisational priorities.

This advice is reflected in a recommended PgCert-HC read, ‘Strategic Public Relations Leadership’ by Anne Gregory and Paul Willis. The book discusses a metaphor I particularly liked which takes the sea as its inspiration.  It highlights the importance of meteorological and navigation skills for communications professionals – an ability to guide the organisation past both visible and hidden dangers.

The importance of insight so that the organisation can work with prevailing conditions to maximum effect but also be aware of forces that can combine to create a treacherous environment that can threaten its very existence.

For me, this perfectly explains the wide-ranging strategic value of communications that should justify a seat around every board table. Sadly, as Chris pointed out, this will require an aspect of culture change so that the role of strategic communications and engagement is on an equal footing to other portfolios such as finance.

In fact, there are arguments as to why communications leaders could in fact ‘double-hat’ with disciplines like HR to ensure both hearts and minds are won to achieve organisational goals.

Getting there is obviously a journey so I was pleased to hear Chris acknowledge the roles of organisations themselves supporting people on this transition to ensure they are equipped with the right skills, tools and team. Rachel Royall (Chair of the CIPR Health Committee and host of the event) rightly added in the importance of professional development, something that for me, had taken a back seat as a full-time mum to two little humans.

Justifying your worth and making the case for broader investment, not only in your own development, but in securing enough resource to give you any chance of realising the true potential of strategic communications is key. Chris shared his experience of turning around the communications function at a Government department, thanks to justifying the return of investment of introducing three senior functional specialists. He went on to discuss the importance of demonstrating the impact of communications with a short discussion on use of data to evidence success.

Chris explained that, beyond data, was the need to ensure face-to-face time with the top bods. Securing a spot in the Chief Executive/Chairs diary to understand what keeps them up at night is vital to build up a strong relationship as a trusted advisor.

Key to Chris’ success as an effective leader was the ability to seek feedback, listen and adapt an approach and he recommended this to ensure self-awareness.

Equally, the ability to hold the mirror up to the organisation. Strategic communications is uniquely placed to have a helicopter view, to bring objectivity to boards.

The topic of risk aversion then arose from a member of the webinar crowd.  ‘What should we do if the organisation doesn’t listen to advice and is risk averse?’ Chris gave an example of how some issues in recent news headlines could have been avoided if organisations had got on the front foot of problems. It was noted, however, that becoming a trusted advisor, doesn’t happen overnight and there is a need to gain the trust of boards, secure early wins and play them back.

The importance of internal communications and insight as a whole was the final topic of discussion with emphasis on setting up systems to effectively listen. The NHS Providers CEO What’s App group providing a surprisingly useful platform to gather immediate views during the last 12 months.  Obviously, the right tool has to be used in the right context.

To conclude, while Zoom proved to be unexpectedly tricky initially, it certainly provided me with the right tool to join the conversation about the role of communications and the boardroom.

I would like to thank both Chris, Rachel and Katherine for inviting me to join discussions and look forward to more.

Claire Routh is currently working on behalf of the Mid and South Health and Care Partnership as part of the COVID-19 response.  Claire’s role prior to COVID-19 was as Head of Communications  and Engagement for two Clinical Commissioning Groups in south east Essex.

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