By Christine Hughes
Director of Communications, East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
I manage a team of eight people in communications and fundraising and some of us are now working from home for a lot of the time. I miss the day to day camaraderie with my team; but the upside is that I have more confidence in the team working independently because they are performing well without me breathing down their necks - and it’s even nicer when we do get together.
Major incidents don’t happen that often and while you prepare for them, you’re not really sure how it will pan out. We very quickly got going with a drumbeat of communications for staff and it made people realise how important it was for them to be engage with the communications and messages that are sent out.
A massive change for me has been the receptiveness of the audience, internally and externally - people are keen for information, and have generally acted on it. I haven’t heard the expression ‘nobody told me’ for ages!
Comms to the fore
Because this has been a long incident, the comms team has been recognised as really important to the success of the changes we have had to make quite quickly.
COVID has increased recognition of comms as a key strategic function of our organisation and the incident response.
Instead of it being, “get comms in and they can get the messages out,” we are influencing how and when and why. Apart from simply attending the command meetings we have been a driving force in making sure our staff are kept informed of issues as they develop and are updated about issues that are particularly important to them, such as PPE.
I’ve always been comfortable with my role as an influential part of our Board, but this is the first time the whole comms team have really appreciated their own role as influencers.
We started off with a twice a day briefing, making sure it went out at a regular time so people knew to look out for it. Now it’s a couple of times a week. We make sure that when people open the email it has the key information in their eye-line and then they can scroll down for further stuff.
We have a health and wellbeing team that we work closely with and we are very proud of our reputation for a strong, engaged staff culture; that has been a key theme of our communications.
PPE was one area in which we were able to advise on the best and most sensitive way to put out messages. Early on, we had issues with some staff wearing masks inappropriately: it was really important that people used PPE correctly and to preserve stocks so there was plenty for colleagues when they needed it. There was a strong reaction elsewhere when the message was sent ‘not to waste’ PPE. Some clinicians felt they were being blamed for shortages that were not their fault. We were successful in reassuring staff about availability, making it clear that people had to follow the correct procedures and guidance in how they put on and took off equipment and using the right level of PPE for particular circumstances. We made the information highly visible and the messages were clear and concise.
We have been communicating more frequently externally with email bulletins linked to information on the website, recognising that external stakeholders needed to be communicated with in the same way as our staff during this period. The Covid-19 bulletins are more concise than usual, and reflect what we are saying to staff. Consistency is massively important, internally and externally to other stakeholders, like MPs – we need them to reinforce our messages.
I think we’ve got the balance right and we’ve developed a weekly ‘Other News’ publication to make sure we keep doing the positive, celebratory stories, and we ensured our chief executive frequently messaged the entire workforce.
No one’s saying they miss the glossy staff newsletter we used to send, which might make us question whether we should go back to doing that again.
More social media and media
We have always been very careful with our social media posts to make sure the content is high quality and we only posted a few times a day. That changed as we increased our output to cover both COVID and non-COVID related messages.
We have a rolling news banner on our website home page and we have had to keep this under review to decide when to stop putting on only COVID messages.
There have been difficult issues to manage through communications such as changing the visiting policy, which has been an understandable and necessary change but not a popular one. It is incredibly difficult for people to come to hospital and not have visitors and it has also had a real impact on staff.
Handling the media felt very different at first; there was a lot of NHS central control so we couldn’t say anything. Then when the local media did come to us with questions, they went out of their way to be nice to us and to make sure we knew that they appreciate what we do.
We hosted extensive filming by the BBC with two, five nights a week features which our staff were very excited about and engaged in very positively; throughout the pandemic we have also had good local media coverage. Following a request from NHS England, we hosted photographers from international news agencies which was great and resulted in some fantastic images and national spreads.
MS Teams is essential
MS Teams has been the single most obvious contributor to transformation for me; it has made communicating between individuals and departments easier. Virtual meetings are more efficient, they are more focussed so there is no time wasting. What I think we need now is to improve everyone’s skills in how you chair a meeting, to make sure all voices are heard.
In a Board meeting with 15 or 16 people you can probably socially distance in a large room; the bigger issue for me is how we allow public access to a Board meeting. We will have to look at how we maintain openness, perhaps by streaming on Facebook Live.
Personally I find remote working a little bit difficult, I am really missing meeting someone and shaking them by their hand.
Previously if you said you were working at home people might raise their eyebrows. Now, even our chief executive is working from home a couple of days a week, and the message that sends out is incredibly helpful for people to understand that working from home is ok and can have significant benefits.
Keeping up morale
We now have to work hard to make sure we keep hold of our great staff culture and the comms team will have a massive role to play in that.
Staff morale has stayed high; there has been real mutual respect among staff, with people willing to be redeployed in different ways; and extra respect for people working on the front line.
Seeing the attitude of the public and press towards staff has been a real morale booster. Local organisations and individuals have been fundraising for our charity and donating lots of things including pizzas, water, chocolate, toiletries and other goodies, which has been great and very much appreciated
The comms team are now feeling appreciated for a different reason; in the past it was because they did lovely PR and designed nice posters; we built up the brand and protected it; we caused a spotlight to shine on our staff. Now, we are feeling valued for something more fundamental to the organisation – we’ve contributed positively and consistently to the management of an ongoing ‘incident’; my team is riding high and feeling very valued.
I definitely feel as a non-clinical person that we, the communications team, have been privileged to be in the middle of this; while it has been difficult, we have been very much a part of the response to COVID; it is a once in a lifetime experience.
Story told 11 June 2020