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NHS comms colleagues have had an incredibly tough few months. And it’s not over yet.

by Jane Appleton

I write this in week 11 of lockdown and since Day1 I must have seen a hundred bookshelves. Intellectual ones, colour-coded ones, “I ran out of bookcase” lumpy heaps, and the “Things I have gathered over my whole life” ones, which seem rich in Harry Potter and Narnia. 

Like most of you, via Teams/Zoom, I am spending a lot of time in other people’s spare rooms.  

The savvy ones blur their background to a Miami beach or the bridge of a science fiction spaceship. People inspecting my unhidden shelves will notice a wide range of self help books ranging from How Not To Wear Black to The Artist’s Way. None of which is a good look in a bookcase.

I work in NHS comms and I have never been busier.

Covid comms has both tested our skills in managing message, and our skills in adapting to connecting with colleagues, senior teams, and 24/7 incident control centre cells via a laptop balanced on a book at the mercy of rural wifi. It’s hard to feel like an influencer when I have, as an introvert (off the scale – thanks Myers Briggs) who has managed over many years to be a learned extrovert, and now must consider how to be an introvert again so I don’t miss the company of everyone in the office. Most of the time I am exhilarated by the challenge, and daunted by the scale of it.  

We are simultaneously drafting, revising, interpreting, and consuming the message. It shifts around each day, so the job is never finished. How to announce a staff death, what the posters on restricting hospital visitors might say, the constant challenge of messaging on PPE, the media keen to announce your local Nightingale hospital as a white elephant, or a lifesaver, or livening up when one of the Royals might open it.

And keep notes. Use a loggist’s notebook. Record decisions. There will be a public enquiry. Keep better notes. Complete templates, SITREPs, record your Teams meetings, have an issues log, escalate upwards these things and decide yourself on those things. Keep everyone connected. Organise staff briefings via a technology we hadn’t used this time last week. Oh, and take some time off, as its important to recharge.  Only – when?   

Chatting to a colleague (bookshelves in a good state, not too trashy, not too Booker Prize) about the potential long term mental health impact of Covid on a whole global population, we go through the various staging posts. Anxiety, stress, survivor guilt, PTSD, and suicide. Alongside the pesky virus, all these other risks lie, invisibly waiting to catch us out when we pause to draw uninfected breath.

Communicators are born connectors and we tribe together over whatever social networks we inhabit, comparing experiences, stresses and what we can share as we don’t have time to build our own. Everyone signs off the same – stay safe, hope you’re ok, keep in touch. It’s a hug sent down wifi and Bluetooth but received in warmth and gratitude.  

We will live with this for many years. It will grace CVs as the ultimate example of both “What were you most proud of?” along with “What experience have you learned most from?” I might only have changed a word on a poster, but if that changed one person’s behaviour, and that person stayed well, have I done my bit? Years of reckoning await us all.

Jane Appleton is regional director of communications at NHS England. You can say hello on Twitter at @JaneEAppleton

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