The rich tapestry of life (and death) Article icon

The Communications for the Royal Marsden Hospital is both inspiring and rewarding and draws on a wide range of skills, according to the women who lead the team

If you ever meet Elaine Parr or Rachael Reeve at a dinner party and they tell you where they work, please don’t say That must be depressing, because the duo, who lead the communications team at Royal Marsden NHS Foundation, Europe’s top cancer hospital, say that nothing could be further from the truth.

‘Cancer’s depressing but the way you talk about it, and the people you talk to, doesn’t have to be,’ says Parr, head of PR and communications. ‘In my team, we spend a lot of time in the children’s centre and we’ve all got one patient that has really stuck with us for one reason or another. It can be sad at times but it’s such an uplifting and inspiring place. You go to patients and say Do you mind if we interview you for the magazine [RM, Marsden’s internal publication]? And they go Of course, anything for the Marsden.’

‘We do it in the Royal Marsden way,’ adds Reeve, director of marketing and communications. ‘Being very clear, being very professional about how we deliver that message. So it is just about communicating in the right way for that audience – with compassion but also with sincerity.’

But despite specialising wholly in the treatment of cancer, and therefore relieved of the time-sensitive pressures of an Accident and Emergency department, communicating the hospital’s work is nonetheless challenging.

‘I’d say one of the challenges of working in a globally-renowned hospital is the breadth of the role,’ explains Parr. ‘Although it’s just cancer, we’ve got several different hats that we wear and it’s about merging those hats together.’

She cites the example of the hospital’s £18 million children’s centre in Sutton, which was opened by the Duke of Cambridge and the Duchess four years ago. (Prince William, following in the footsteps of his late mother, has been president of the Royal Marsden since 2007.) Though it was just one event, there were many messages to get across to stakeholders and they had to remain consistent.

‘It was, first and foremost, a comprehensive cancer centre for children and young people, and it’s a trust facility, a medical facility, but it was 100 per cent funded by our charity and donations to Teenage Cancer Trust,’ says Parr. ‘It’s about matching those messages that go out to a single audience and getting multiple messages across in one story.’

But without the need to ‘fire fight’ some of those queries that might plague other NHS trusts, Parr concedes that she and her team have time to think creatively about how to push out messages in a proactive way.

‘We have the time to think Well, how can we tell a story in a new way and using new messages?’ she says. ‘For example, it was Prostate Cancer Awareness Month in March. We do a huge amount of prostate treatment, so how could we get that message across in a new way?’

The answer lay in the rather modern medium of live tweeting, using @royalmarsden. Two of Parr’s press officers tweeted during a procedure to remove the prostate gland of a 70 year old patient using the hospital’s new state-of-the-art da Vinci Xi surgical robot. Assisted by an off-duty surgeon, the press officers communicated each step of the  procedure as it happened, from the moment the patient was put to sleep until he woke up, explaining what each meant, such as Mr Mayer is cutting the bladder attachments to allow him greater access to the prostate.

They provided information on the benefits to the patient, highlighting that the robot had been donated by one of the hospital’s benefactors while showcasing its attributes and even answered questions from followers during the operation. The hospital gained 34 new followers, adding to more than 16,000, during the event, and the tweets had a potential reach in excess of one million people.

‘Robotic prostatectomies have been around years but it’s about being able to tell our story in a different way,’ adds Parr.

Live tweeting during surgery is apt for a hospital that is committed to transparency. It was recently the subject of a Panorama documentary Can you cure my cancer?, opening up the procedures of Phase One drug trials. As the Royal Marsden found with the latter, such openness with regards to cancer is not an easy feat for communicators because it is not always happy news.

‘We have to tell many stories, whether they are the positive, uplifting, inspiring ones but we also have to deal with palliative care and patients who die,’ explains Parr.

‘In Panorama, we followed the journey of seven patients during Phase One trials, and two died during filming. So you’ve got to balance the subject matter with the reason you’re telling that story and who you’re telling it to. We don’t hide from the truth. Phase One trials are difficult but you explain why you are doing this.’

Both Parr and Reeve are wholly aware of the importance of such a story. Not only does the Royal Marsden train the majority of the UK’s cancer doctors and nurses in its medical school, it also plays a central part in developing new treatments.

‘I think the role of the Royal Marsden is very much as a thought leader,’ says Reeve. ‘Because we are the hospital that we are, we have that time to put those pieces out there, to talk about discoveries and patient care. We see our duty as a cancer specialist centre is to share that.’

‘It’s not what happens in the Marsden stays in the Marsden,’ agrees Parr. ‘For example, there was a radiotherapy technique and trial that started here about ten years ago. Today, it’s the standard treatment for head and neck cancer for radiotherapy across the world.

‘Not everybody with cancer is going to be at the Marsden but we want them to know what we do and know what’s out there so they’re better informed, wherever they are in the country or the world.’

The Royal Marsden is also a founding member of the London Cancer Alliance, working with 14 other NHS trusts from South-East London to share medical and clinical protocols and raise each hospital to the same level of efficiency. Such camaraderie is, perhaps, to be expected in what is arguably a hard time for the NHS, with public opinion waning and future reforms looming in the run up to the General Election.

‘I think because of those challenges in the NHS, you actually find that a lot of the NHS trusts are very efficient organisations, dealing with ever-decreasing numbers because the climate out there is very challenging, but it’s about how you can improve systems,’ says Reeve. ‘And the lifeblood of the NHS is its people. You’ve got incredibly committed doctors and nurses who do their very best for their patients at all times.’

Whilst the Royal Marsden is very proud to be part of the NHS, it is also well-aware of the weight of its own brand. Formed in 1851 by William Marsden after the death of his wife from cancer, it is now one of the top five cancer hospitals in the world, treating more than 50,000 patients a year, including well-known celebrities, which means that the Royal Marsden name carries an impact that can be used to great effect for its patients.

‘We’re quite unique in that there are two things that help support the Royal Marsden to get the very latest treatment or to do the very latest things, and that’s the charity, the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. It has been established for ten years and has a big role to play in terms of raising funds for the Royal Marsden which allows us to go above and beyond NHS provision,’ explains Reeve. ‘We also have a strong private care business as part of the Royal Marsden brand, but all the profit that’s generated through that activity is reinvested back into the Royal Marsden for the benefit of all patients.’

‘We face the same issues that any NHS trust faces in that it’s a challenging economic situation at the moment and we’ve made efficiencies as a trust,’ Parr adds. ‘But with the charities and the private care, it does give us that extra ability to go above and beyond.’

Parr leads a team of six, including three press officers and an events manager, and sits as part of a team of 20 headed by Reeve, which covers all aspects of the hospital. Keeping the workforce motivated is, partially, due to the high level of job satisfaction.

‘I think what’s really lovely about this role is that there’s real job satisfaction. The work that [our people do] will have a real impact on an individual, and will improve a patient’s experience of this hospital,’ asserts Reeve. ‘If you work in a commercial environment, it’s all about the product you’re selling. It’s very money-orientated. Here it’s all about whatever we can do to improve a patient’s experience, and if we can help support a small part of that patient’s journey, then that’s incredibly rewarding for me and my team.’

‘I’ve only ever worked in the public sector. And I enjoy feeling that you’re part of a cause and that the part you’re playing actually helps,’ says Parr. ‘It’s just a really stimulating environment and I personally, as head of a team, like to think I’m focussed on developing all its members. I want to make sure that everybody is playing their part in all aspects of the project, whether that’s a junior member of the team leading with support from a senior member or vice versa. I want people to feel supported but I also want them to feel stretched and able to develop and do different things.

‘One person doesn’t just do charity and one trust and another research. Everybody is making sure they’ve got a full skill set and they’ve got that balance of the really meaty, research-led, clinical serious subjects with some of the more lighter charity aspects of our job.’

But such positivity from both the staff and patients does not mean that Parr or Reeve are unprepared for crises that may crop up. ‘This is the NHS, there’s always a crisis plan in place!’ jokes Reeve.

‘Major emergencies are just like normal events, but they’re bigger, faster and with more pressure, so you keep your core ways of working the same,’ reasons Parr. ‘You’re open, you’re honest, you’re accountable and you’re transparent. If you keep your clear communications going, there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be able to deal with a major emergency the same as you deal with day-to-day work.’

Dealing with crises on a limited budget, however, cannot be easy. ‘This is the NHS, we don’t have money for big advertising campaigns, or buying advertorials or things like that,’ says Parr. ‘You have to tell a story, like with the live tweeting, in an imaginative, innovative way to get your messages across.’

And with innovation comes variety. Both Parr and Reeve speak at length about the immense breadth of their role as communicators for the Royal Marsden and the sheer amount of knowledge they have to learn across the entire organisation.

‘Every day is different. You never quite know who you’re going to be talking to,’ says Reeve. ‘We deal with such a range of people in this role. One moment you’re working on a charity project with the Duke of Cambridge, the next minute you’re organising a visit in the hospital.’

‘Last year, we had the Secretary of State [for Health, Jeremy Hunt, who used his visit to announce new hospital food standards], the First Lady of Mozambique, a major donor and Ralph Lauren all come in the space of about a month,’ adds Parr.

Whether it is learning new skills, speaking to new people or the rewarding feeling of helping in the eradication of cancer, it is clear that the Royal Marsden is far from a depressing place to work.

‘It’s a really inspiring place to work. And being in comms means that me and my team, we touch every part of the hospital,’ says Parr proudly. ‘You get to deal with the chief executive to the staff nurse, from surgery to radiotherapy. From the porters, the patients, the scientists, the clinicians – you deal with everybody on all matters.

‘You have to know a little about a lot and it does take us some time, if it’s an incredibly complex subject, to get a handle on them but it is a very privileged position to be in.

‘We walk round the hospital to do photo shoots or filming or to interview doctors and nurses for our internal magazine and they’re amazing. Genuinely I’ve never met anybody like our nurses and our doctors. Their care and compassion at this hospital is second to none. The sheer intelligence of some of the staff just blows your mind.

‘When you’re interviewing people for jobs or something, you can’t help but get excited about where you work.’