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COVID-19 on health care communicators: a challenge that inspired greatness

Sarah Waddington, PR consultant and past President of the CIPR, has just announced the publication of Future PRoof’s fifth edition.

01 December 2020 by

Sarah Waddington, PR consultant and past President of the CIPR, has just announced the publication of Future PRoof’s fifth edition. A labour of love and tears, she pays homage to NHS communicators and shares their incredible and unforgettable testimony telling the greatest communications outcome of all: saving lives.

 

They will remember it for the rest of their lives. NHS communicators navigating a global pandemic, thrown at the forefront of the 21st century’s biggest crisis: COVID-19.

Yet, not only did they accomplish an unforgettable task, but the role of the NHS in the UK reminds us all that connecting organisations with its stakeholders, staff and communities is at the core of what communications is all about.

The “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” campaign became one of the most effective health campaigns in recent history; “a stroke of genius” as Amanda Nash, head of communications at University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust, puts it.

With her book, featuring the contributions of twenty NHS communicators, Sarah Waddington was able to tell “a story of excellence, innovation and inspiration”, the story of a campaign that had the power to impact behaviour, communicate clear actions and save lives.

 

A story about people, for the people

“We’re all aware of organisations inside and outside of healthcare telling us that they are kind, have integrity, respect each other, are compassionate and so on but it is so much more than that and the pandemic will have exposed this”, Lisa Ward, head of communications at NHS Providers writes.

Authentic and genuine two-way engagement during times of crisis is the only true way of communicating messages effectively with an audience. We’ve all seen this quite clearly during the first lockdown. Hence why the “Stay Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” campaign was a story about people and for the people.

The role of communicators has been central since the beginning of the pandemic, deputy director at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust Ross Wigham explains, not only with the public, “but also in supporting, engaging, informing and updating our own staff.”

On this point, the book portrays the crucial role of internal communications throughout the pandemic, offering a value that has rarely been seen before.

While the critical role of internal communications was prioritised so the NHS staff felt supported and valued, the trust between healthcare professional and the media was also a key pivotal aspect of the campaign, Cassie Zachariou from the University College London Hospitals (UCLH) remembered: “Like most things, you can try to plan filming as tightly as possible but you do need an element of good fortune on the day to make compelling television.

“A crucial piece of the jigsaw that had been missing from my prep was a patient who was able and willing to tell their story. While we were filming on ICU, one such patient was admitted to the unit. He was a lovable, 67-year-old bus driver who was determined to fight the disease to get back home to his wife, children and grandchildren. His story brought real human interest to the report and Fergus subsequently followed his recovery until he was back home safely with his family.”

 

The role of technology

The challenge was unprecedented, but for Claire Riley from Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, the work was around “supporting individual trusts and not reinventing the wheel of content.

“We set up some specific daily bulletins for local leaders but also created animations, videos, media opportunities and social content that everyone in the region could use to get the messages across. This was further supported with more targeted local stories, all of which were designed to inform and influence individual behaviours.”

The nature of the virus meant that a digital-first strategy proved effective. Despite the technical challenges and the various time retrains, we can now all benefit from technology and apps to access home-based services and online consultations that enable self-care.

Caroline Latta explained how it was all possible: “Websites support a variety of engagement methods. Take content management systems adapted for discussion forums, wikis (to gather ideas, co-draft or comment on documents, plans or maps), videos and hosted surveys etc. Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet and Skype can be used for webinars to share information, but also focus groups and online co-production methods. Telephone interviews always have a useful place, especially if supported by a community sector or social research supplier.”

 

NHS communicators can and must be confident

The COVID-19 pandemic stressed the importance of providing accurate reporting and telling journalists the true story. Chris Hopson explains in the book how “we gave [journalists] objective analysis that was free of the spin that they believed lay behind a lot of what they were being told by Government sources.

“We made a particular point of acknowledging where there were shortcomings and trying to be accurate about the reasons for them.”

Channel 4’s health and social editor, Victoria Macdonald, echoed this message that greater trust should be placed in comms teams to “work with media to achieve responsible and accurate journalism.”

“In a crisis, do the simple things well”, Michael Carden wrote. And this is exactly what the NHS did.

Sarah Waddington is absolutely right: “NHS Providers has finally given the workforce a voice, where before it had none.”

NHS communicators, you deserve our support, our appreciation and our trust. We thank you for your efforts in dealing with mental health, understaffing and budgetary issues. Your authentic and modern communication tells an incredible story of empowerment for the industry. Thank you for demonstrating the greatest value of communications by saving lives – our lives.

 

Future PRoof, fifth edition is available now from https://www.futureproofingcomms.co.uk/purchase

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