A postcard on covid comms

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed alongside Jude Tipper for the Talking Comms podcast to give an idea of what it’s like working in NHS comms at the moment.

You can hear us in full flow here but if your ear drums can’t take that here are the 5 key points I was trying to get across.

“And in attempts to understand a thing so simple and so huge
Believed that they were meant to live after the deluge,”

Jackson Browne, Before the deluge

#1 strategy
The starting point was developing a really clear strategy on how we planned to communicate with people during an unprecedented event. The external challenge was large but fairly straight forward but internally it was really complex. We had to quickly provide a team that could cover strategic and tactical operations over 7 days and make sure our own 5,000 staff understood what was going on. Our strategy was to effectively create a newsfeed for staff that could be accessed by email or smartphone app at any time.

Seeking feedback to make sure people were getting what they need is really important even during a crisis. It’s important to get that feedback and make sure you’re giving people what they need. In a fast moving situation we tried to do this though Twitter DMs, email and online survey.

Working at such pace and scale in a way the NHS has never done before reminded me a bit of the comparison between the symphony of the test match vs the pop music of T20 – it’s the same skills but a totally different game.

#2 Teamwork
In the past 8 weeks I’ve seen first-hand how amazing frontline NHS staff are but also appreciated the vital role that support staff play in mobilising such a mammoth effort. It simply couldn’t be done without HR, facilities, logistics, cleaners and all the others who are playing a huge part.

Strong networks and group support are vital and one thing that has been invaluable is our daily call with heads of communications across the North East but also national groups like NHS providers and all the informal virtual support for comms people that have sprung up.

#3 New tools
Among all the new fancy digital tools and video conferencing apps the most valuable thing that I’ve rediscovered is the giant whiteboard that’s on my office wall. It been invaluable in planning workflow, updating fast moving information, jotting reminders and keeping everything in one place. We’ve all seen the power of video conferencing and things like MS Teams which will undoubtedly change the way we work in the future.

Not a new tool but social reach has been the undoubted key one for us. We have a strong online community and since the start of March we had 3 and a half million impressions, 337,009 engagements with the public and more than 10,000 messages posted to us. It’s let us deliver important health messages to the public, helped us engage with staff, boost morale and shoot down fake news.

#4 The importance of trust
We know that trust in institutions has been falling for some time and while the NHS is a much loved institution it’s certainly not bullet proof. The organisations that done well during this crisis are the ones that have worked hard to build trust over the longer term, have used the right spokespeople and engaged with staff in an open and responsive way.

I know that many will disagree here but over-communication, especially for staff, is a huge risk. There is so much noise in the system I can see how staff can switch off when bombarded with too much information. We need to keep space for thought and reflection so that the really urgent issues can cut through the noise.

#5 Mental health
Ironically at the last comms leads network I arranged a session with Sally North East on wellbeing and mental health for comms people and it was a real eye-opener. Working at this pace and for this time must take a toll but the most upsetting piece for me was seeing colleagues and close friends getting into PPE and heading off for roles on the covid wards.

Our medical director gave me a fantastic advice sheet aimed at Intensive care doctors and it really helped me with my own well being you can see it here. Stop. Breath. Think before making any decision is great advice.

I’ve also revisited a book by James Stockdale who was a POW in Vietnam and focuses on the Epictetus and the stoic philosophy  https://adaywithoutoj.com/2018/02/26/lessons-from-the-stoics/

I took three key lessons from it:

  1. Most things you can’t control, so focus on the things you can.
  2. Always keep the faith but also confront the seriousness of the situation you find yourself in.
  3. Calm your emotions and focus on what you able to do.

To end – a huge thank you to my team at Gateshead, the NHS providers CommsLeads network and the North East & Cumbria heads of comms network.

So this isn’t all doom and gloom here are some moments of positivity during the crisis:

Some special moments of some of our patients leaving our wards after beating COVID-19:

👉🏽 Henry – https://bit.ly/36aSFWa

👉🏽 Brenda – https://bit.ly/2Tm1ebh

Thank you to everyone who clapped from their doorsteps or clapped with us at the hospital. Here are just a few videos:

👉🏽 https://bit.ly/36d7WWp

👉🏽 https://bit.ly/2zNLlnc

👉🏽 https://bit.ly/3cNr2ES

👉🏽  Behind the scenes of Covid wards

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