Using real stories to talk about hospice care

A guest blog post from Frances Fox, Strategic Communications Officer at Macmillan Cancer Support


Talking about death, dying and bereavement is perhaps not what most of us would choose to discuss on any given day, but it’s important to try and make sure people feel comfortable discussing it and their wishes for the end of their life – this is one of the many things a hospice may aim to do.

I had the privilege of working at a hospice as the PR & Communications Manager. I had no experience of hospices before I started the role, and I quickly realised that hospices are places focussed on life, happiness, and enriching whatever time we have. Yes, there is sadness but more often you’ll see laughter, friendship, joy and if you’re lucky – a therapy dog!

Next week I’m pleased to be taking part in the Hospice Hack Day for Willow Burn Hospice in Durham. Ahead of the hack day, organiser Kate asked me to share some thoughts on what it’s like working in comms at a hospice.


Drawing on lived experiences

One of the main challenges in doing PR for a hospice is that the public don’t usually want to be reminded about death and bereavement, so encouraging them to consider supporting a hospice might feel like you’re starting on the back foot.

When I worked at a hospice, I found three strong groups of voices that could be used to tell the hospice story – the voice of staff, the voice of supporters and the voice of patients.

Many people support a hospice because they have an experience of one, perhaps through being a patient or through a family member, a friend or a colleague. Being able to develop and share the story of a patient or supporter was an incredibly powerful way to encourage others to support the cause.

When it came to using patients’ and supporters’ stories to promote the cause, thoughtful consideration was given to the message, tone, channel and format of any communications.

Where I worked we had supporters who were willing to share their experience alongside a call to action relating to fundraising or volunteering – putting their first-hand accounts to the hospice experience greatly enhanced the communications strategy.

The voice and knowledge of a hospice’s staff and volunteers was an asset to draw on. I would integrate this knowledge in to the comms plan, turn it in to content that was easy for the audience to understand, and share it across multiple platforms. For example, I invited a journalist from Buzzfeed to the hospice to interview staff which resulted in this article, which reflects the variety of work a hospice does.

Sharing the stories of patients, supporters, volunteers and staff across a variety of channels was a successful way to create a conversation with our audiences, in particular on social media where these stories consistently had a higher organic reach and generated more engagement than other types of posts.

Life first, not death

In the communications I was responsible for one theme was apparent - telling people’s life stories, not their death stories. It was people’s experiences of how the hospice impacted their life that shaped communications about fundraising, volunteering, education, service developments and much more and ultimately without those stories it would have been much more difficult to generate support for the cause.