Communicating through a pandemic – an Oxford University Hospitals story

By Frances Bonney, Web Communications Officer – Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust

The most extraordinary thing about the first wave of COVID-19 was how we could see it coming.

We could see the approaching tsunami on the horizon – we only needed to look at local infection rates and do the calculations. It was as if we could predict our own future.

At least our frontline services had some chance to prepare. In Communications, we were instantly centre stage, gathering up and passing on armfuls of new information vital for our staff and patients, while long-established wards and departments in our hospital buildings slid around from floor to floor like a giant game of Tetris, and every area that could be identified as suitable seemed to become another Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

There was simply so much to tell everyone. Misinformation gets out of control fast on social media platforms like Facebook, especially when people hear they may not get their surgery or be able to visit their loved one in hospital. There could not be any gaps in the information stream from their local NHS – a source they should feel able to trust completely.

Like so many other teams, the Communications team was quickly scattered when the instruction came to work from home. We retained a very minimal presence on site, to be available at short notice for any department with an urgent message to get out to our 13,000 employees.

Multi-organisation working groups were quickly set up, to organise the response to the pandemic, with communications representatives attending to hear first-hand decisions taken by senior staff and local partners. New chains of command were rolled out, with every COVID-19-related message, internal or external, signed off at the highest level.

All our staff had to adopt new roles or working practices overnight, with some safety measures announced late in the evening, to be implemented the next working day across our multiple sites. At 5.00pm we were glued to ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ to find out which announcement would impact most on our Trust and our team.

New areas sprang up on our internal staff intranet and external website, as we collated every reliable source of information about COVID-19 we could find. Advice seemed to change daily, and it was vital that our staff and patients had instant access to the most recently updated resources.

For our staff, these included instructions on how to don and doff their PPE (including having their respirator masks fitted to their faces); new infection control measures; how to get tested or to test themselves; risk assessments for those considered vulnerable; how to access emergency accommodation; and everything HR and IT, from the implications of having to self-isolate, to how to access the necessary home working software.

We set up a dedicated email inbox which received – and still receives – a huge number of emails. These come not only from our staff, but members of the public, in the UK and around the world. We did our best to direct them to the information on our own website, or on gov.uk, or to the people we thought would be able to help.

For our domestic staff and porters on site, who do not have access to our intranet, our in-house design team created colourful and striking posters, in multiple languages, for their work areas. They also created a suite of resources for floors, doors, walls and lifts, to ensure social distancing and other safety measures were enforced across our hospitals.

The staff briefings with our Executive team, previously held in the Academic Centre at the John Radcliffe Hospital, moved online, with our in-house audio-visual team providing live coverage and videos to watch later. Attendance soared among our staff, many of whom had been unable to travel to Oxford for briefings in the past.

Meanwhile, offers of support flooded in, and the wonderful Oxford Hospitals Charity stepped up to co-ordinate and distribute meals, toiletries and offers of accommodation from the local community. Many offers came to us via Twitter or Facebook, and every response had to be fast and reliable – we had to warn well-wishers not to risk their health by coming into our hospitals. Offers of PPE came in too, from bulk supplies offered by companies in China to local people who sewed fabric face coverings and made visors in their own workshops.

As the pandemic progressed, and the new processes became established and familiar, other factors came into play. Oxford was in a global spotlight as researchers here developed the new vaccine and our patients were the first to receive it. Clinical trials like RECOVERY and STOIC identified life-saving treatments now used world-wide. This was a welcome source of positive stories in an otherwise bleak landscape during a much deadlier second wave.

Moving messages of support were still arriving, and we shared as many uplifting and inspiring comments and images as we could on our digital display screens and social media. We talked to COVID-19 survivors and shared their stories. We ran a website and social media campaign to thank the many teams working behind the scenes to support our frontline staff.

On our social media we had to get the tone right – a balance of public health messages reminding people to stay safe, and messages to inspire and reflect the emotions we were all feeling. On their own social media, our staff were proud and brave. A nursing assistant picked up the hashtag #OneTeamOneNHS and adapted it to #OneTeamOneOUH, which became our battle cry.

There was (of course) a social media downside: on the day our Chief Nursing Officer gave the first dose of the Oxford Vaccine we blocked hundreds (literally, hundreds) of extremely abusive and misleading Twitter accounts from commenting under our posts.

The pandemic has changed all of us, the way we work and the jobs we do. Some of these changes will be permanent – virtual briefings are here to stay – and we have addressed other issues that have come to light: for example, clearer dates on our time-sensitive news articles, and more resources for staff working on site who may not have access to the global emails we send.

Among our colleagues, understanding has increased about our team, and what we do. The importance of clear and coordinated communications was recognised by the Trust’s leadership and staff more generally. They were grateful for the daily emails, the frequent website and intranet updates, and the quick responses to their emails when they needed information fast and didn’t know who to ask.

As a Communications Officer in the Trust during this period, I feel I have been a part of history. I admit to a certain adrenaline rush that comes with being involved in such an important national effort. But there is a cost too, and while my friends in other industries have also struggled with changed roles, lockdown, uncertainty and fear, they have focused on their work as a way to forget, briefly, about the pandemic. They have not ‘lived’ the virus all day, every working day. In recognition of the impact on our support services, the Trust’s extensive programme to support the psychological recovery of our staff is open to all of us, not only our colleagues working on the front line.

I’ve never been so proud in any job than during this pandemic, having had the privilege to support our extraordinary workforce throughout such a challenging time – and the team is continuing with vital work, such as reassuring local communities and encouraging the take-up of COVID-19 vaccination, with the generous support of many of our staff, who have shared their experiences in multiple languages to encourage others to get their jab.

We know it isn’t over for our Trust – but we really do know what we’re doing now, and how to do it well.

Some reflections from members of our team…

“I’ve always thought the role of a communications team doubles up as a translation service, in all directions. That’s never been more prevalent than during the pandemic. With guidance changing on (what felt like) a more-than-daily basis, it was our team’s job to make sense of it, translate it, and get it out to our staff and patients who had a million questions of their own.”

“It’s not just the brainpower, it’s the admin, too – the drafting, sign-off and cascading of information through our website, social media, email, media statements etc. Communications teams run on caffeine at the best of times, but it’s telling that we’ve gone through three kettles in the past year.”

– Natalie Ellis, Communications Manager

“As a team we are immensely proud that we have continued to deliver mission-critical products and services, at pace, throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Our delivery of cross-media communication and layered marketing across digital screens, printed media, social media and video has allowed us to reach the widest and most diverse range of audiences.”

“Surprisingly, printed material has been identified as having the most immediate effect on behaviour across our hospital sites. Information posters, floor stickers and roller banners, strategically positioned at the point of physical interaction with staff and patients, have proved incredibly effective.”

– Jackie Love, Head of Design

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