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Communicating in a Covid-Crisis

Covid-19 Response & Preparations

This blog is written from personal experience, with great respect to all NHS staff and volunteers who continue to manage and prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The UK’s health sector employees and the general public are experiencing significant pressure as the nation endures yet another lockdown. Frontline emergency health care workers are fatigued from the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic as they prepare their operational readiness for a second wave, coupled with a highly aggressive influenza season this winter.

In March 2020, there was no pandemic playbook, our team developed a sense of direction and toolkits, as we set out to craft narratives that warned and informed staff and community.

ECC’s Communications Group Executive led the staff and community Covid-19 strategy for the South West Ambulance Service Trust (SWAST). Health care information, policies, and alerts were distributed to over 5,000 emergency workers, 1000 volunteers and 7.5 million citizens.

Planning for the unknown

In early 2020, my team and I gathered with the key stakeholders to workshop the potential course of the virus and accompanying messages to ‘inform and/or warn’ of the latest advice. Our audience included frontline ambulance staff, back-office professional service teams, managing media relations and the general community.

The first stage of mapping the communications was to consider the Big Picture, which loosely mapped the covid-19 pathway over a 100-day cycle – for example, the early stages focused on early preparation and few cases (staff and public awareness and readiness); as peak cases were on the rise, communications focussed on fatigue; the downturn of the virus would then lead towards a what’s next scenario (being the second wave of recovery) and finally, the cycle is repeatable.

Having outlined the Big Picture, the workshop then went on to develop initial narratives using a Message Plotter, that paved way to crafted internal and external stories. The messages were aligned to national messaging, at the time. The workshop led to 30-day calendar events, which the team committed to delivering within areas of the business and alongside health care, HR and operational subject matter experts.

Identifying a pathway for initial messages provided the communication and leadership teams with focus and expectation through further defined programs of work such as plans on pages, calendars, events and briefing notes for smaller campaigns to support people-centric stories and media exclusives. The teams worked exceptionally well to support each other with delivery.

Have a read-through of the Best Practice Guide to support your preparedness for a Covid-19 event or similar crisis. Would you add anything? 

  • Stick to your brief
  • One approach, one leadership
  • Practice what you preach
  • Reinforce your front line
  • A seat at the table
  • Report regularly

Bolstering staff morale

Communications has an important role in supporting the morale of an organisation and due to the ever-changing Covid-19 operation updates, health care policies, and PPE stock checks, the ‘keep-up’ nature of communications (for the team and staff) was a daunting task.

The weekly e-newsletter was upgraded and distributed three times per week Microsoft Teams brought a new channel to life, through daily leadership videos/vlogs which enriched messages with authentic tributes and up-to-date operational impact alerts. Key initiatives included, but not limited to:

  • Mental Health ‘You Matter’ posters distributed with support resources
  • CEO and leadership team virtual town halls
  • CEO and leadership team safe visits
  • Stories from the public and managers praised frontline teams
  • Middle management ‘thank you videos’ were successful with staff
  • Recognition videos and profiles of ‘teams behind the scenes’
  • Daily CE and leadership Vlogs with morale and operational messages
  • 5000 staff letters sent to homes to thank families
  • Kids card sent to the children of staff
  • Care packages to sheltered/vulnerable staff
  • South West local celebrity heroes social media campaign

These are some of the great achievements delivered, to bring a fully engaging communications package to life.

Calling upon your community 

Do not underestimate the role or the importance of your community.

Covid-19 affected 7.5 million people in the South West of England and the response for volunteer support and aide from the community was immeasurable.

Universities designed PPE masks; 1000 volunteers had active duties with more wait-listed; charitable groups raised donations; the army, police and fire service took on extra training to provide an emergency response; supermarkets and retailers donated food to staff rooms.

Health care workers were inundated by SWAST social media with community messages of hope, praise and thanks; including memorable visits from the Royal Family. The published good news stories provided ambulance staff and back-office teams with the acknowledgement that their work brought together a community.

Doing things differently

Covid-19 is a marathon, and in fact, it might be here to stay. So, the communication activities that support staff and the community require planning and follow-through, while you are maintaining relationships with people who are experiencing high levels of personal and work-related stress.

If time and preparation allowed for planning such an event, I am sure communications would have been finely orchestrated, with templates and tool kits.

However, the reality was visible to all, and on a global stage, the UK was building the ‘Covid-19 response’ as we were all experiencing it.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and with this, I would recommend the following:

  • NHS national and regional level scenario planning: Leading all health care agencies with developed frameworks, key messaging, tool messages, etc.
  • Upkeep of channels: Invest in digital channels for staff-on-the-go such as Workplace by Facebook. Make sure you have all the right tools in your kit.
  • Continuity planning: Which skills have the highest demand and lowest resource (e.g. one graphic designer), do you need to upskill team members? Teams will fatigue and suffer illness brought on by stress.
  • Key message guidebook: Keep a single source of truth manual of your key messages. This was started later on but was useful mostly for the media teams in tracking specific call to action messages.
  • Stakeholder management: The coordination of key stakeholders, emergency services and community groups came together quickly. However, the media response was managed differently, due to the sheer volume of enquiries. If scenario planning had gone to plan, the triage of enquiries would have been smoother from the start.

Communication practitioners can appreciate that message hierarchy and consistency are key to delivering simple, clear and memorable messaging. I feel, from my own personal experience that the national approach to Covid-19 could have been simpler.

A note to say…

I am in awe of the work and dedication put in by all NHS staff. Teams have supported each other and helped bring their personal and work stories to life, through encouraging community participation as well as action.

At the time of writing, 29 October 2020, there have been 45,955 Covid-19 recorded deaths. The latest statistics are available from Public Health England.


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