We caught up with Oliver Ellis, External Communications Officer at North Bristol NHS Trust, to delve deeper into the comms challenges faced from within the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic, the joy of seeing the Trust's first patient vaccinated and telling stories through data driven insights.
Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?
I have always been interested in the relationship between journalism, media and politics, studying this at university before embarking on a brief academic career. After getting halfway through a PhD, I ultimately decided that I wanted to do something more dynamic and collaborative while incorporating my political interests and strong writing skills – a career in communications was the natural choice!
What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important for a communications role? Why these skills/attributes in particular?
In addition to the obvious skills like strong written and verbal communications, I have found being personable, diplomatic and able to manage relationships critically important. In a big organisation like the NHS you need to be able to navigate the competing requests for your time and influence the right people effectively, while maintaining focus on your strategic goals.
Creativity and problem-solving are also key – you need to be agile in responding to fast-moving situations and come up with innovative solutions.
What sort of challenges do you face in your role?
Working in an NHS hospital trust during the pandemic has had its fair share of challenges. Almost overnight new policies and procedures were introduced, staff were being redeployed, equipment was procured and the hospital estate was changed. Communication to our 10,000 staff had to be clear, up to date and accessible. Ever since, we have been in and out of these highly reactive phases as dictated by further waves of COVID-19. The challenge has been to find the breathing space to revisit our longer-term goals and strategy.
Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?
One that stands out was the roll out of the vaccination programme – a project that would normally require months of planning rolled out in weeks, and with constantly shifting parameters. As the communications lead for my Trust, organising and facilitating the media for go-live day was a real hands on challenge that required a cool head, good judgment and adaptability. Seeing our first vaccinated patient featured on the 6pm news later that night was gratifying.
How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?
I am fortunate to work in an organisation where communications is highly regarded and the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced this perception. Throughout the pandemic we have had a “seat at the table” and been able to influence the big discussions from the outset. Communications has been crucial in affecting the huge behaviour changes necessitated by the pandemic and in managing the understandable uncertainty and anxieties of staff and patients. Internally we have introduced a daily operational update to keep staff abreast of all the key information, while across all channels we have tried to tell the story of all the amazing things that take place at the hospital.
What advice would you give to those at the start of their career in communications?
I’m still early in my own career, but being confident, curious and getting stuck in has worked for me so far!
What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?
Get to know your organisation. Its strategy, priorities, key influencers and stakeholders should inform your approach to strategic communications.
Relationships and networks. Build strong relationships inside and outside your own organisation. The workplace is fundamentally a social environment, so being able to negotiate and influence is key.
Be insights driven. Ask who is your audience, what do you know about them and how can you make things as effortless and engaging as possible for them?
We at React & Share live for helping communications teams through understanding website content sentiment and improving it off the back of feedback. How do you and your team approach content improvement?
Evidence and analytics are a good starting point for improving your content! With a Masters degree in research methods I really value a mix of qualitative and quantitative insights into how our communications is being received. I recently introduced a monthly social media report to get a better grasp on what is and isn’t working on our different social channels – the insights have really informed how we tailor content to different platforms.
However, in communications I think we are often a bit too fixated on terms like content and messaging. Sometimes we also need to take a step back from that granular lens and think about form, purpose and context. Ultimately this will help ensure your communications – or content – is tailored to your audience.