AB Thinks  →  24th December 2020

At the heart of the crisis

AB Thinks

The NHS has always been a cherished institution throughout the UK. But never before has its expertise been tested the way it has throughout the pandemic.

Guidance, rules and regulations have changed rapidly as the country has navigated its way through Covid-19 and the NHS has had to be the quickest to pick up these rules.

As we wrap up The Internal Comms Podcast for 2020 – and as our National Health Service faces, quite possibly, its toughest ever winter – we thought it fitting to talk to those who’ve been working in its communications teams.

Katie sits down with Amanda Nash, Head of Communications at Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust, Ross Wigham, Deputy Communications Director at Northumbria Foundation Trust, and Adam Brimelow, Director of Communications at NHS Providers, to talk about everything they’ve dealt with this year – and what they’ve learnt from the pandemic.

Here, we sum up some of their key takeaways. Listen to the full interview on The Internal Comms Podcast.

Celebrate the positive difference comms has made
Amanda: “My learning has really been about the impact of communication from those we communicate with. We got a little note from a member of staff in about May or June that said, ‘I would just like to say what a fantastic job you have done during this pandemic, when the news was full of doom and gloom, you sent positive messages to us. My family members have commented on how wonderful it is to see the heartwarming stories on Facebook. This in particular helped my children see that it’s okay for mummy to be in work’.

“The gratitude is in being in the jobs that we are, we can make a huge positive difference. And I think certainly we have many examples in our organisation of how we’ve done that. And the positive difference that will have been made by communications needs, both to patients and their families and staff, is something to be celebrated actually.”

Don’t be afraid to push back
Ross: “In a normal world we’ve got so much stuff going on: looking after the comms for 10 hospitals, GPs out of hours – you can imagine you’re often firefighting – but planning the positive stuff as well. There’s so much going on, sometimes you can forget about the fundamentals and just get stuff out to get through the day. One thing this has definitely taught me is thinking about and remembering those fundamentals of good comms and knowing your audience and what works, and actually pushing back on things you don’t think will work.

“That’s been a really useful exercise. At first we were really keen if there wasn’t anything to say then don’t say it. You can over-communicate as well as under-communicate. What we really tried to do was make it need-to-know, so people could trust those channels and know it wasn’t just going to be the usual guff that might be getting sent up.”

Comms has been a changemaker
Adam: “What the NHS achieved in responding to the first wave, and then the continuing efforts we see now, was absolutely remarkable. The agility of the NHS to respond on a massive scale to an unforeseen, hugely complex and challenging crisis was exceptional. We have shown that there’s an opportunity to cut through intractable problems which have been holding up progress.

“Another example is the way new partnerships have been forged between the NHS and other organisations to make things happen locally. We were experiencing big changes across the health and care sector with the development of what’s called System Working, with different types of organisations coming together to plan and deliver care. That has been accelerated. It’s been interesting to see how often it’s been about organisations coming together at a very local level to make things happen. Comms has been a very important ingredient in being a changemaker. Those relationships have bedded in and that bodes very well for the future.”

It’s ok not to have all the answers
Amanda: “One of the things our staff told us about during the pandemic was, it’s okay for our leaders not to have all the answers. It’s okay for them to sometimes say ‘we don’t know’, and it’s okay for them to be vulnerable. There’s definitely something in real honesty. We found the sessions we’ve run for staff on vaccination have been really well attended, with great questions. We actually went out and surveyed staff and asked, ‘what would you find useful to know before you have the vaccination, before you make a decision?’ They told us what they wanted to know, we pulled together all the information and gave that back to them. It’s about understanding what’s on their minds, what questions they want answered and engaging in that rich two-way conversation and not being afraid to say, ‘we don’t know that yet’.”

We connect through stories
Amanda: “In a world in which we’re surrounded by data, it’s interesting that stories are the way that we connect. Look at that lovely story about Captain Tom. I have a million stories that we could tell about wonderful staff and patients, and those stories are what has resonated with our staff, helped boost morale and lifted them, our patients and our communities. The power of stories is something I will always be amazed at and hopefully utilise to best advantage.”