A communications challenge: public and professional

Communication is vital at a time of immense public anxiety, uncertainty and various positive and negative responses to guidance, strategy and delivery of services. Work to understand the various ‘audiences’, their cultures and preoccupations, their vulnerabilities and their resources, is urgently required. It is not enough to publish lists of ‘do’s and don’ts’, information and advice, as if everyone is the same.

We live in a multicultural, sadly highly unequal and often divided society. Differences in social and economic circumstances, culture, religion, geography, and age mean the messages various groups receive need to be carefully considered and targeted. A nuanced, focused communications strategy, using media relevant and accessible to different groups, needs urgently to be developed. Regular, vivid and relevant messages, communicated in human terms, are required. These must speak to the experience and concerns of a variety of audiences, if we are to get the buy-in to, cooperation with and contribution to our national strategy in the face of the virus and its consequences.

Today, it was announced that Boris Johnson ‘hires advisers to make new virus PR strategy mirror political campaign’ (Guardian 1st April 2020). This may well be a step in the right direction. What is worrying, however, is that the people in question have been closely associated with Conservative election campaigns, including last year’s. If there is any confusion between clear, honest and informative messaging with projecting positive images of the government, or protecting its reputation, this will dangerously undermine the audiences’ confidence and trust.

Alongside such a public strategy, the Government departments, organisations, NHS Trusts and Local Authorities involved in our response to the virus need similarly to give due attention to communication, both internal and public. Above all, honesty, responsiveness to real experience and events, and clarity are required. These do not necessarily come readily in a culture that has for far too long traded rather too much in spin, accentuating the positive, preserving reputation, top-down edict and control.

Vitally, such organisational communication strategies also need to ensure that the lived experience of front line workers can be communicated upwards, so that leaders and managers are educated about what is happening. They will then know what needs responding to, and will be better able both to act, and to communicate responses, in ways that mean something to, reassure, help and respect their staff.

Of course, such communication will not remove the anxiety, stress and weariness of our staff. However, it will give them a sense of being heard and respected. It may reduce their anger and despair about mixed messages, denial and evasion. These factors will contribute to their sense of trust, safety and agency, all vital to their effectiveness and wellbeing. There are far too many stories coming our way that suggest that this work is urgently needed.

Senior leaders who commit to facilitating communication in these ways will show that they are aware of what needs to be said and done, open to hearing difficult things, and ready to try to address them. They will find themselves increasingly trusted and respected, and will be working with people much more ready to work with them, however difficult the situation.

What will not help is the reported move by several NHS trusts to discipline staff who ‘go public’ with their concerns and fears about their safety or their services’ readiness. Again in today’s Guardian:

Doctors and nurses are being warned by hospitals and other NHS bodies not to raise their concerns publicly, according to a dossier of evidence collated by the Doctors’ Association UK (DAUK).’

Clearly, the delicate balance between maintaining public confidence and openness about problems needs constant attention. However, to threaten staff in this way borders on abuse, given the widespread and consistent concerns of staff, and their everyday vulnerability. Their public pleas and protests should be understood as only human, and proportionate to the position they are being put in. Perhaps the senior managers making these threats should be made to spend a shift or two, poorly protected, in A&E or ITU? At the very least they should be spending their time showing staff that their concerns are being heard and acted upon urgently and effectively. If that trust is established – and there is clearly a lot to do to enable that – staff are far less likely to want to air their concerns in public.


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