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Tackling taboos: comms around death don’t have to be morbid

14 June 2022

As charity communicators, we all know how important it is for our words to be clear, concise, and contain a call to action. We understand the power of stories, and how to harness emotion and compassion to help reach a goal – whether that be raising awareness or driving donations. But what do you do if the charity you work for is saying things nobody wants to hear?

Lean into the awkwardness

Death, dying and loss are still taboo subjects for many in the UK, and our Communications team at St Christopher’s Hospice is challenged with breaking down these barriers before we can even start to have conversations. If the general public avoid content that focuses on end of life, that means that they won’t be aware of what exactly a hospice is and how we can help people – and they won’t know why we need their time or money.

That means we have to think extra creatively about how to use case studies, content and campaigns to spread the word and show people that death and dying don’t have to be lonely, scary or painful topics to consider. Instead of shying away from anything that will shock or surprise people, we choose to lean into them in fun and interactive ways. To challenge people’s fears and preconceptions, we’ve hosted family-friendly events like a ‘paint your own coffin’ class and thrown a Death Disco, which helped to break the ice and threw open the (physical and metaphorical) doors to the idea of our own mortality!

If your charity also deals with a taboo subject why not try leaning into the awkwardness around it like we have and see how it can open up valuable conversations for you and your audience.

Change the narrative

If you’re thinking that changing people’s minds is easier said than done, then you’re right – some of us are much less willing to engage with the idea of death and dying than others. This is understandable on a personal level, but when your organisation needs to raise £15 million every year to provide individualised end of life care, it can’t afford to miss out on the chance to connect with large swathes of the population. Nobody likes being reminded that they’re going to die, but we’ve found that tone of voice can make all the difference.

We make sure our content is bold and eye-catching; whilst remaining inclusive, approachable and understanding. One campaign invited people to share metaphors and idioms that they use instead of saying ‘died’ – for example ‘passed away’, ‘gone to sleep’, and ‘no longer with us’ – and we then asked whether these phrases helped people, or just created even more distance between themselves and the idea of death. Our findings enable all of our comms materials to be as respectful and relatable as possible, whilst encouraging people to break through their fears and change how they think and talk about death.

Talking with your audience to find the terms that resonate with them, particularly when dealing with tricky subject areas, can help you find new ways to connect with both existing and potential supporters.

Think outside the box

It’s a cliché, but for good reason! Last year, we ran an online art auction called Mystery Masterpieces, which encouraged members of the public to bid on unique postcard-sized artworks created by patients, supporters, local school children, celebrities and famous artists. The catch was, that nobody knew who created each postcard until after the bids were in – giving everyone the opportunity to win a potentially priceless piece for just a few pounds.

You wouldn’t usually associate hospices with art (or auctions!) but it was a hugely successful campaign and drew in a whole new audience who hadn’t otherwise heard of us.

Finding new and different ways to capture people’s attention can give you an excuse to introduce them to your cause in a natural way that feels very much on their terms.

It takes a village

As all comms teams know, we can’t do our job in a vacuum – especially when it comes to a topic as nuanced and sensitive as death. We work closely with departments all across the organisation, from the inpatient unit to our complementary therapists, to make sure our campaigns are as interesting, varied and representative as the services we provide. This can also involve letting go of creative control, and empowering our colleagues to step up and take the lead when it’s their expertise we want to showcase.

We run workshops which introduce other teams to the kind of work we do in comms, and upskill them in areas in which they can help us – for example copywriting, media training, and photography. This widens our net and allows us to take advantage of moments we might otherwise have missed, and capture case studies directly from people who know our patients best.

Working in comms for a hospice is challenging, surprising, fun and ultimately life-changing. Learning how best to handle tricky topics and cultivate difficult discussions isn’t unique to our sector, but it’s something we can all benefit from no matter what our organisation does.


If you enjoyed this, you may also find this useful: Making hospice care as much about living as it is about dying

Our next Creatives Group event looks at Creatively communicating impact.

Banner Image: Andre Moura on Pexels

Sarah Hastelow

PR manager, St Christopher’s Hospice

Sarah is the PR manager at St Christopher’s Hospice, where she’s currently trying to break cultural taboos and start a national conversation around death, dying and loss. She loves working on bold campaigns which ask provocative questions and change people’s minds as well as their lives. Out of work, Sarah enjoys bouldering, looking after her pet gerbils, and learning Danish just for fun.