Rory Hegarty on pandemic comms, agility and flexibility

Rory Hegarty on pandemic comms, agility and flexibility
Rory Hegarty, director of communications and engagement at North West London Integrated Care System, joins us to chat about leading comms during the pandemic and the shift to off-script comms.

Why did you choose to pursue a role in communications? For example, has it always been your passion or was it pure happenstance?

It started out with an interest in writing, which led me to train as a journalist. When I started my career, that industry was in recession and I worked for small publications you’d never have heard of and as a freelancer. My freelance work included a part time role supporting an MP, including with media work and campaign materials. That led me in to the comms world and I discovered I much preferred working on that side of the fence – I got a job as a press officer for the National Consumer Council and this led in to wider voluntary sector and then NHS comms roles.

What personal skills or attributes do you think are most important in the communications sphere? Why these skills/attributes in particular?

I think the most important skill is to have and retain a sense of how something will land with the general public, stakeholders and the media – including that journalistic sense of what might become a story for better or worse. Reputation management is a big part of the job. Writing skills remain critically important – there is nothing that detracts more from my impression of an organisation than poorly written material — it’s surprising how many senior people in all sectors make quite basic grammar errors. The comms team needs to make sure these don’t see the light of day. And I think an understanding of the full range of media is essential – successful communication in the 21st century means a multi-channel approach, repurposing content for different media and audiences.

What sort of challenges do you face in your role? Is there a particular challenge that you experienced in the past that stood out?

Over the last two years, leading communications across eight London boroughs during the Covid pandemic has been all-encompassing. The challenge moved quickly from messaging about public safety to getting people vaccinated – which has involved probably the most extensive public engagement exercise I’ve been involved with. You can’t really address communities and individuals who are cautious or resistant to vaccines through broadcast comms – you have to go and talk to them directly. What’s emerged is a clear sense that many people and many communities, especially those who have been most disadvantaged historically, don’t always trust information from public bodies or experts. It’s given us a real sense of the scale of the challenge – inequalities in healthcare will persist unless we collectively address that issue of trust. Misinformation through social media is a well-documented and serious challenge, but it’s not the only one. You don’t persuade people by suggesting they’re stupid. Listening and understanding people’s concerns and lived experience is such a crucial element of good communication.

What I am proud of is the way public services – the NHS and local councils – have pulled together to address the Covid crisis. It’s hugely improved relationships and I think bodes well for a future in which we are expected to work together across whole systems – which is really what jobs like mine are about, coordinating communications and engagement across the health and care system. It means working with multiple stakeholders, often with very different perspectives to each other.

The next big challenge is of course recovery: the NHS is under greater pressure than it has ever been and we’re all expecting a tough winter. Supporting the public through that and getting them to the right service at the right time – while recognising there is a backlog of care and winter is always our busiest time – is going to occupy a huge amount of time and effort.

What one thing would make your working life easier?

It’s sounds trite, but a TARDIS would help! The pace of work can be unrelenting and the challenge can be to find enough thinking and planning time.

How is the role of communications perceived in your organisation?

I think there’s been a step change across the NHS in recent years. Comms was certainly always seen as important, but I think recent events have demonstrated the vital importance of clear public messaging and significant public and stakeholder engagement. The NHS shouldn’t just be talking to people when we want to change a service or encourage them to get vaccinated. It needs to be an ongoing dialogue with our communities. I think that’s more widely recognised now.

What do you think the secret of success is when working in communications?

Relationships. Building good relations at all levels is so important. That’s not generally done over email, where things can be easily misconstrued. Pick up the phone, or even better go and meet people in person (or over Zoom/Teams when necessary!).  Internal is as important as external – you need your colleagues to trust you.

As a public sector comms professional, I would add not to get caught up in spin. Reputation management is important, but honesty and transparency are a big part of that. We will never build trust if what we say doesn’t accord with people’s reality or we’re seen as resorting to sophistry to get out of a tight spot.

At React & Share, we’re obsessed with helping our clients measure and report their efforts - what measurements do you think comms teams should be presenting to internal stakeholders?

We use the OASIS evaluation method favoured by the Government Information Service. I like that approach because it measures outcomes as well as outputs. In my job, a lot of social media traction or positive press coverage may be gratifying, but my bottom line would ultimately be: are we making our population healthier? So increasingly we are looking at metrics around population health, which are obviously difficult to measure over a short period of time, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put the mechanisms in place. For example, getting more people vaccinated or taking up screening would be much more valuable than thousands of website hits (though website hits may help generate those outcomes).

Looking into your crystal ball, what do you think will be the next big thing in communications?

It’s already happening, but I think authenticity and honest engagement with our audiences are increasingly more important than rigorous message discipline. We went through a phase a few years ago where every political interviewee just recited the same key messages and that turned the public off. In the social media age, comms needs to be more agile and less stifled, because it really is a 24-hour business. At the same time, social media brings all sorts of risks – one misjudged tweet can go viral before the comms team have switched their laptops on – so working with staff at all levels around how they communicate effectively will only grow in importance. Everyone is a publisher now, and if they work for your organisation, what they say can have a big impact.