Sarah West joined Hospice UK as Director of Campaigns and Communications earlier this year, having worked in a wealth of roles including Interim Director of Communications at Plan International UK, and Director of Communications at the World Cancer Research Fund. Here she tells ehospice about creating a new communications strategy for the charity and working on new, exciting plans for the Dying Matters campaign.
How have your first three months at Hospice UK been?
I’ve had the chance to visit a few hospices and I’ve been struck by the breadth and depth of work that is being carried out. The passion and dedication of the staff that I’ve met stands out. They really do go the extra mile to make sure people receive the best care and support – it’s impressive.
I’ve been involved with the Hospice UK’s Hospice Comms Conference which was a wonderful opportunity to connect with other comms professionals and to start to understand what they face on a daily basis. It’s always good to hear what does and doesn’t work in different contexts and to be mindful of this when thinking about national communications or campaigns.
Another highlight was getting to meet the CEOs of the Scottish Hospice Leaders Forum. It was sobering to hear about the challenges these talented professionals are facing when it comes to running a service when the financing of that service can be so uncertain. I enjoyed sharing some of my previous campaign experiences and what we can learn from different sectors.
The other key area of work that I’ve been getting into is the Dying Matters campaign, which is exciting. Working with the team we’ve been looking back over the last 10 years and talking about what we want to achieve in the next 10 years. There are some great plans coming together.
What are your goals for the next six months to a year?
I am developing a communications strategy for Hospice UK. I want to explore ways we can further engage the public to support this sector. There’s a huge amount of goodwill from people towards hospices and we need to look at how we can further galvanise this.
It’s a tough time for end of life care provision so it’s vital the public know what’s happening and are supporting the work hospices are doing. That could be through fundraising but also through campaigning and making their voices heard about what they want and need to make sure that the end of life for their loved ones is as positive an experience as possible.
I mentioned that we have exciting plans for the Dying Matters campaign. We will be launching Dying to Hear as our theme for 2020 Dying Matters Awareness Week in May, which will focus on how we can be more supportive listeners when it comes to people wanting to talk about their death or end of life plans.
Lots of cultures around the world seek to remember the dead in some way so in late October Dying Matters will be launching another campaign to mark Day of the Dead, called I Remember, where we are asking people to remember via social media someone important to them who has died, and why they have particular memories of them. I hope it will be a positive way for people to digitally connect about our shared experience of life and death.
I’m also really keen to make sure I get out and about as much as possible and visit hospices. There is nothing like being grounded in the day-to-day issues to be able to confidently communicate about the great work that is going on.
In the longer term, what are you hoping to achieve in your role?
I would like to inspire growing numbers of people to connect with us in some way. Whether that is campaigning for us, getting involved with their local hospice, raising funds or benefiting from the information we provide.
I want to see people feeling comfortable about addressing the subject of the end of life with each other in a positive, supportive and proactive way. There are so many great people doing incredible work on this issue, and I’d like Hospice UK to pioneer, showcase and support that. We have an opportunity to galvanise all the voices wanting to see end of life care improve.
One of the best ways I think we can do this is through increasing the use of digital channels and looking at how we can creatively connect people. There’s some great work going on in some of our hospices on this so some valuable lessons to learn from and expertise to share.
What are the unique challenges of raising the profile of a charity like Hospice UK?
It’s always tricky when you are working on an issue that few people are comfortable talking about, particularly when it will affect them directly at some point. Getting over that stigma requires determination.
There is also the fact that communication needs to be tailored to your audience and no one-size fits all in successful communications. Everything is context specific so coming up with themes and ideas that all hospices buy into is always going to be difficult. Our job is make sure we’ve got concepts that are broad enough to capture attention whilst being practical for people to implement. It’s a great challenge to have though and one of the reasons I enjoy working on campaigning and communications.
Death and dying is also, despite being universal, a personal, unique experience so making sure we’re sensitive to the different ways people address end of life is always at the forefront of decisions. Balancing this with trying to ensure you’ve got something that is going to cut through the noise of all the other important issues and news that is going on is hard.
Having worked in different areas of the charity sector, do communications strategies vary dramatically between them?
The differences lie with the audiences that you are targeting, the messages you use to reach them, the issues, the brand that you are dealing with and the funding you have. It’s pretty much what you’d expect. Having worked for very well-known charity brands in the past it is definitely an easier sell because you don’t have to explain what you do first, plus there’s the budget to do things like good research which helps you develop the strategy with greater accuracy. In a smaller organisation however you’ve got to be really creative to make the most of the limited resources, which can make the job really satisfying.
Ultimately, there are common frameworks for a comms strategy but it needs to be developed knowing what the organisation wants to achieve. One of the reasons I like developing strategy is how it can have such a positive effect on the whole organisation, not just on the external environment. If you get it right it’s an opportunity to innovate and work more effectively.
If you were to pick a particular highlight from your career, what would it be?
Gosh, that’s hard to answer. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been involved with some life-changing campaigns over the years. I guess I’m most proud of the campaign to get digital hearing aids available free on the NHS.
With 1 in 3 people experiencing hearing loss having the right hearing aids makes a huge difference to quality of life. My husband has noise-related hearing loss so I see the reality of what this can mean, and to have access to the latest technology is literally life-changing. It’s been interesting having people tell me over the years since this was achieved what a difference it’s made to them. That’s really satisfying to hear and have been a part of.