Representation in healthcare comms: speak to people, not at them

During the height of the pandemic, I was seconded to the NHS Nightingale Hospital London to manage its media function.

It was hard work, but exhilarating to be at the centre of the pandemic and see first-hand how integral black, Asian and ethnic minority professionals – who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 – are to the NHS and their communities.

It was therefore important for me as a comms professional to shout about what I had seen and highlight how representing diverse communities isn’t a ‘tick-box’ exercise.

During my 20-year career, I have often sat in on comms campaign meetings where representation is an afterthought, with comments including: “Don’t forget it has to be diverse.”

The result is often a poster of a middle-aged white man with corresponding text in Urdu or another ‘tick-box’ language.

How can an Urdu speaker identify with an image that doesn’t represent them? They’re not being spoken to, they’re being spoken at.

Representation matters, and it is just as important in the field of PR.

The CIPR’s Race in PR Report found a “profession with declining levels of ethnic diversity and insufficient action being taken to address the issue”.

Diversity isn’t widely reflected in comms teams or in leadership positions across the NHS.

Yet a diverse comms team and leaders provide valuable insight, with lived experiences that can help create communications that resonate with target audiences.

A good example is the #NurseBehindTheMask campaign, which celebrated the host of ethnicities that work across the NHS.

It was a moving and thought-provoking exercise, showing NHS communicators there are valuable resources on their doorstep.

I wanted to hear the voice behind the mask. I wanted to understand their experiences of working during a pandemic and how they felt knowing they risked their lives being on a COVID-19 ward, long before we heard even a whisper about the vaccine.

Similarly, Barnardo’s work on its Boloh Helpline, created to support parents and carers from a black, Asian and ethnic minority background during the pandemic, understands how to reach its core audience and implement comms accordingly.

Even the name of the helpline, Boloh, means ‘to speak’ or ‘talk’ in Urdu and Hindi. It has been personalised for its target audience.

They have understood how they need to communicate with their core audience and their comms materials are representative of the people they help.

I don’t believe that communities are necessarily hard to reach, it’s more that we don’t know how to reach them through our communications.

NHS comms teams have just the people to help working in hospitals and health and care settings – your colleagues.

Reach out to them, hear their stories, partner with them in campaigns, understand your core audience and tailor comms to effectively engage with them.

We now need to see, hear and acknowledge the richly diverse make-up of the NHS as well as reflect this diversity in our PR teams in the NHS and across the health and care sector.

The very people we are trying to reach will respond positively when they see themselves authentically reflected in our comms.