How would you set up and deliver comms at a brand-new hospital created in just days? Here’s how one experienced director of comms did it and she’s shared her learning with comms2point0.
by Jane Harris
At the start of April I was asked to join the leadership team at the new NHS Nightingale Hospital in Bristol. After a full-on three days arranging a handover of my day job I walked through the doors of the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol)’s conference centre to find an emerging and evolving community of passionate and dedicated people with a clear shared purpose – saving lives and giving hope.
Over the following eight weeks this is what I learned.
1. Find your people
People are at the heart of our hospital and that’s the story we’ve sought to tell. Our people are the focus of our social media, of our stakeholder briefings and of our staff updates. Listening during the first few key days helped me identify who could help us tell our story, who was giving me the words, the ideas, the emotion that would reflect our vision and who had the skills (perhaps with a little bit of coaching) to do so confidently.
Our hospital is a community of people from different backgrounds, different organisational cultures, not just within the NHS but from the armed forces, contractors, companies and volunteers. It is a family of talents and skills which will support us, if and when needed, to care with compassion.
Our people are our voice. Ultimately, if it is used, our hospital will be caring for people and their families who are at their most vulnerable. Our patients, their families and friends and our staff will all need our care, our kindness and our innate humanity. Our communications must provide comfort and reassurance.
Our hospital is non-traditional. The single ward feels industrial in scale and purpose. On entering it prompts (at least in me) the faint panic of the unfamiliar. Looking at the 300 intensive care beds, I can’t help but see a friend or family member in each one. The emotional impact is overwhelming. I cannot help but think about how that would feel for both them and me.
And then I talk to the nurses, the allied health professionals, the doctors, the whole hospital team and I am comforted and reassured. I know that they will use all their skill, experience and expertise to provide the highest quality of care. But they will do so much more than that. They will see the person inside the patient, connect with their loved ones and make what will be a truly traumatic experience for all as supportive and caring as possible. And I want to share this comfort and reassurance with everyone who might come into contact with our very special hospital in any way – as a patient, a relative, a member of staff, a stakeholder.
Our staff matter. The functionality of our hospital and the provision of intensive care to people with coronavirus mean that the working environment for our hospital staff will be hostile. 12.5 hour shifts in full PPE takes a roll, physically and mentally, even with regular breaks. Getting the communication and care right for our hospital staff is paramount. Not just because it will support them to provide better care to our patients, but because each and every member of staff deserves the best we can provide. Our responsibility is to care is for them as much as for our patients and their families and friends.
We strive for our communications to be human, kind, warm and compassionate. We’ve been honest about our purpose and consistent in our messaging. We’ve put our people at the heart of it and their voice is our voice.
2. The basics matter
Listen, don’t talk. My first days were all about listening – listening to each of the executive team talk about their vision for our hospital, what it was and what it wasn’t, how it fitted into the region’s critical care network. Meeting new colleagues from across the clinical and corporate teams as well as people from partner organisations, listening to them talk about their work, being the silent witness in the room helped us get to the position early on where we could shape and agree our key messages, vision, values and tone. Having these owned by the executive team was essential.
As we all know, having a leadership team that models the expected behaviour ensures confidence, integrity and consistency which can then be amplified through posters and guides that support staff to adopt them as their own. But this will only work if the values and behaviours come from staff themselves. Listen. Bitter experience has taught me that when visions, values and behaviours are imposed from above it never works well.
Regular and simple communications reflect our tone of voice and reinforce our key messages, vision, values and behaviour help to build this into the fabric of our hospital. Ensuring all our communications reflect these as well as demonstrating these in our behaviour supports consistency and integrity.
3. Keep it simple
Our communications strategy set three clear objectives and established an action plan to deliver them. Each action had an owner and a timescale. Having the benefit of an excellent project management office function really helped to keep us to task and to time.
Content was purposefully simple and clear to reduce workload and the potential for confusion. Our public facing messaging was factual and open with the dual aim of providing information and reassurance.
4. A regular battle rhythm for communications is a necessity
Share your story and find your audiences as soon as possible. Identifying and establishing clearly defined channels and schedules for communicating was paramount in the first few days to keep our audiences engaged, on message and informed.
During the build phase we shared twice daily brief updates with all staff. The morning update focused on three priorities for the day and the evening update celebrated achievements and successes. Both also contained regular reminders to look after each other’s physical and mental wellbeing, infection prevention and control advice and encouragements to take regular breaks. These were supported by a weekly e-newsletter to share photographs, videos and foster a greater sense of community.
We utilised a convenient wall to create a living diary to plot out the schedule for all communications – staff, external stakeholders, media, social media and we stuck to it. The established routine meant that everyone knew when to expect to hear from us and set the pattern for our week.
Again, listen as much as you talk. Joining established communications cells within the system, establishing regular video and telephone calls with partners and stakeholders is vital to build mutually supportive relationships, check out your thinking and respond to concerns.
5. Staff resource needs to be put in place quickly
When you are standing up a team, and a hospital, from scratch, having people on the ground matters. It’s the difference between opportunities being seized and mistakes being made. But it’s a balancing act – don’t just grab the first resources offered. Define your strategy, identify the skills you need in your team and seek to build a team with complementary strengths.
Accept and acknowledge that your system partners, who are working non-stop themselves, will struggle to release people to support you so actively seek out alternatives. Volunteers from the ministry of defence and agency staff enhanced the team bringing in a non-NHS perspective that constructively and positively challenged the innate tendency to group think.
And when you’re struggling with the red tape around resourcing, call a friend and borrow someone amazing from their team for a few days.
6. Don’t underestimate the amount of work
Creating a communications function from scratch while supporting all the different workstreams and managing high levels of media interest is challenging.
Assigning clear roles within the team helped to manage this but even so, it meant working extremely long hours 7 days a week and very little downtime. And yet downtime is needed to refresh the brain and the body, to minimise mistakes and to provide time to think.
Don’t forget to check in with family and friends occasionally either – partly so they know you are alive (one of my day job colleagues refers to my ‘kidnapping’) and partly because hearing a voice from outside the bubble of the hospital, the NHS and the organisations responding to the coronavirus crisis is grounding and important. And of course because you love them and want to make sure that they are okay!
7. Social media matters
In hindsight I would have launched our social media channels earlier to help manage stakeholder and media interest but we simply didn’t have the resource (staff or headspace) to do this at the start.
Timing the launch of the channels around the opening event did work well and got us good reach and engagement but having the channels established before this would have given us wider reach and better engagement.
Social media is working really well with engaging current staff and potential future staff and keeping them excited, interested and inspired about our hospital. It is also a really effective way of sharing our story and celebrating our people.
Like me, you may be a little tired of phrases such as the ‘new normal’, ‘living in a different world’ and other truisms. At the start of the coronavirus outbreak I spoke to my team back at my day job about learning to tolerate uncertainty. What being part of the team at Nightingale Bristol has taught me is not to just tolerate uncertainty but to embrace it and the opportunities it can provide to do things differently. Be comfortable being uncomfortable. And, most importantly: social distancing doesn’t mean emotional distancing. Connecting with audiences with authenticity and kindness has never been more vital as we all strive to save lives and give hope.
Dr Jane Harris is director of communications at NHS Nightingale Hospital Bristol. You can say hello on Twitter at @JaneHarrisNHS
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image via Jane