Published: 16/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5960 Page 43

Better communications can help you raise your profile as an employer, but are you using all the tools at your disposal? Rebecca Coombes reports

A packed session on communications at last month's Human Resources in the NHS conference heard complaints from HR officers that the NHS is not shouting loudly enough about its achievements.

In terms of 'selling' the NHS, it seems the best evidence is not getting the airing it deserves. For example, did you know that the 2004 staff survey found staff were generally happy working in the NHS?

The average score for job satisfaction was 3.5 out of 5. The quality of senior management leadership was rated at 4 out of 5.

NHS Employers public affairs manager Emma Stafford, who co-led the conference session, says: 'There was a call to do more to publicise the better terms and conditions under Agenda for Change .

There is limited awareness out there.

Other good points need to be emphasised, such as Improving Working Lives , which brings flexible working and more childcare facilities.' There was also a call for help from the Department of Health to challenge negative media coverage. The recent election, for example, where MRSA became a big voter issue, had been especially unhelpful in recruitment terms, HR managers said. It added to existing image problems that hamper recruitment, including rural locations with poor transport, scarce housing and old and unattractive buildings.

However, some of the efforts must start at home. According to University College London Hospitals foundation trust director of workforce David Amos, who also ran the session, HR managers must focus on their staff and staff-side organisations as their greatest ambassadors. Top-flight corporate communications are meaningless if nobody believes in the message, he says. Instead review your internal communication channels to ensure you can talk and listen to your staff.

'You can't bribe or cajole staff into keeping stuff to themselves. They genuinely have to want to use internal channels first instead of going to the local press, ' says David. 'You can't implement an internal communications system that is inconsistent with what things feel like on a day to day basis. You can have great leaflets and intranet but they will not work if not compatible with reality.' To make sure all staff feel in the loop, the trust has set up the 'Top 400'. This sounding board consists of 400 managers from ward sisters all the way up to chief executive Robert Naylor. 'This is the most effective way of responding quickly to staff concerns rather than waiting for the staff survey to come out, ' says David.

Unison regional organiser for London Phil Thompson agrees that this open-door approach can make all the difference to staff morale. 'The best example is the London Ambulance Service. It used to be regularly described as Beirut because it was just like working in a warzone. The effect on recruitment was dire. Staff would also go around saying 'do not work here'.' It was a vicious spiral that was only halted with the arrival of chief executive Peter Bradley, who combined additional resources with a change in organisational methods. 'He has an inclusive system of management and didn't ignore our calls to re-equip the service, ' says Phil. 'We went to lobby MPs together. I will be honest and say that before if we wanted to exert pressure I would go to TV or radio as it was the only way to be heard.' A new director of communications came in with an open and transparent style. 'He sees his function as, not whitewashing, but making sure that all the good things that happen get into the mainstream so It is not just a terrible cycle of bad news. The only recruitment problem they have now are the queues of people waiting to join, ' says Phil.

David also prescribes a 'relentless' approach to finding good news stories.

Even MRSA can provide positive news if good local work is in stark contrast to national concerns.

In terms of bad news stories, expect them to happen, be prepared and do not be hostile to journalists, says Emma. 'You have to build up relationships with the press, get local journalists into the hospital, introduce them to the senior managers and maintain contact. And accept it is not all going to be good news.'

Understand your strengths and prepare some key messages to support them.

Be aware of your weaknesses and be prepared to say what you are doing to address them.

Review your communication channels both internally and externally.

Make sure your organisation is on the lookout for good news stories to tip off the communications teams.

Invite local journalists in to get to know you better and have a look around.

Take time to talk to staff. They will appreciate it if you show an interest in their work.

Your staff and staff-side organisations are your greatest ambassadors. Make sure you meet regularly and hear what they have to say.