Are you an eternal communicator? Are you even sure what one is? Read on…
by Amanda Nash
What do you think of that phrase, ‘eternal communicators’? I like it. It speaks of the permanency of what we say and do, especially in an age of indelible social media footprints.
But is it really new? Has there ever truly been an internal v external?
In health, we have been ‘eternal’ communicators for many years. In fact, I wonder if the divide existed even when Nye Bevan first strode into that Manchester hospital to launch the NHS in 1948. We’re a people service, people connecting with people, thousands of them, up and down the country, every day.
I work in a hospital with nearly 1,000 beds, a chapel, three cafes, shops and a Discovery Library which houses some fascinating historical medical collections.
Around 50,000 people per week walk through our front entrance, making it more akin to a small town than a closed office. As staff we share the same space with our patients and their families. We often joke that, although everyone works hard to protect the privacy and dignity of patients, it’s a hard place to keep a secret.
And where is the distinction between staff and patients? Staff can walk on shift with their #hellomynameis lanyard one day and the next, walk into the same hospital as an anxious patient or relative.
It’s the fact we are both service providers and users that perhaps creates the very empathy and human connection that makes the NHS such a wonderful thing.
Increasingly, initiatives are dual-facing. For example, our trust runs a Say Thank You and Learning from Excellence programme – so staff and patients can recognise when someone has done something really well. Rather than just learning from ‘never events’, we recognise the evidence that shows there is rich learning from the many excellent things people do every day – rather than just taking them for granted. By recognising and rewarding them, we can learn and encourage more of the same. Part of our role in Communications is to make patients and families aware of this scheme and how they can use it.
So where does this leave the internal v external debate for our Communications Team?
Well, we work hard to create a sense of belonging in our #1bigteam of 7,000+ staff and volunteers to ensure the life-saving and shaping work colleagues do is valued and visibly appreciated.
As an organisation we still need to communicate and engage with staff in a tailored way. There are many things only they need to know, or act upon. There are some things only they can tell us.
We have dedicated staff channels including an online space where staff can ask the Chief Exec any question they like. We create special briefing sessions – although they’re not always separate from our patient spaces. When we recently announced to our Emergency staff that we had been successful in bidding for £30 million for a new department, we shared the news with them in a huddle in the middle of the existing Emergency Dept. They were careful not to make too much noise to celebrate, mindful of the patients resting around them.
We have encouraged and trained staff who run departments such as research, HR and nursing recruitment to set up and run their own social media accounts. They can often be found online, in our local community, promoting events, responding in Facebook groups when a patient or family member says thank you for the care they have received. They are not just our ambassadors in real life, they are increasingly so online too.
Like the force in Star Wars, the sense of purpose and shared community is strong amongst NHS staff, particularly within the department or ward where they work and more globally, during times of crisis or celebration.
So in these times of ‘eternal communicators’ – our approach to communicating with colleagues is:
Communicate creatively and purposefully. Great content is great content. But what is it we are trying to achieve with our communications? Our job is to shape messages around the why and clear calls to action.
Listen to what colleagues are saying – what matters to them? We work closely with our HR colleagues in doing this. Some of our social media channels provide a rich source for staff ‘listening’ as our followership includes many staff.
Celebrate, celebrate, celebrate – not just successes but also sometimes when we have tried and something hasn’t worked but we’ve gone on to learn from that
There’s no room to be complacent though. Channels are shifting, people have information overload, what colleagues want from a workplace and how they connect with it change. We’re currently in the middle of a review of communications with staff. To do this we’re taking a triangulated approach – pulling together
Feedback from the national NHS staff survey (quantitative and qualitative) which has general questions about communications and engagement
Feedback from our own trust Staff Communications Survey
Joining together with colleagues from our HR &OD team to undertake a ‘Walking in My Shoes’ exercise. Each one of us spends a shift or part thereof with a member of staff from our one of different staff groups. We have asked for volunteers and plenty of staff have responded, happy to be shadowed. We want to know what life is like as an employee in our organisation. What does it feel like? To know and understand, we have to walk in our colleagues’ shoes for a short while and carry out more ethnographic research.
When we have the results, we will use the insight to drive what we do going forward. We’ve got lots of ideas about how we want to improve staff communications – but are they the right ones? Are they solving the right problems? As an example, we print out our weekly newsletter. We often get asked by desk-based staff why we still do this and have been thinking about stopping. The initial responses from our own survey work suggest paper copies are still read and wanted (the newsletter has all the jobs in) – so without good insight, we could stop doing things at our peril.
But one thing I hope we won’t stop doing is sharing stories.
Every year our Communications team creates an advent calendar. One of our team had the fantastic idea of concluding our NHS70 celebrations this year by asking our #1BigTeam “Why do you ♥ the NHS?”
More than anything, their personal stories show how blurred the internal v external boundary is. Some of them tell stories of their careers with the NHS. Others tell stories of them or their loved ones as patients.
There is one story in particular I love – the story of Anita, a senior emergency nurse who some years ago was rushed into our Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and not long afterwards found herself clutching a very tiny and premature baby.
Today, Anita is a very proud Matron for amongst other areas, NICU. From internal to external and back again. It’s an eternal conundrum.
Amanda Nash is Head of Communications at Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust
Image via Camden Public Library