Working through a crisis

Home » Working through a crisis

Veronica caught up with Claire Riley virtually over a much-needed cuppa to gain some insight into how life has been while managing communications for the Trust.

It was precisely a year since they last appeared together in Northern Insight Magazine and who could have imagined that they would have been having this discussion back then?

We all know these have been unprecedented times and of course we are not over them yet. 

Can you give us an idea of what it has been like managing the communications activity for the NHS in the region?

I don’t think I have ever experienced anything like this in my career to date. The intensity, the volume, the pace, the focus, the complexity, the highs and the lows, the overwhelming sadness and fear. The humbling support from the public, partners and local businesses, the amazing staff – and everything in-between. 

Unprecedented is a word that has been used many times, but I don’t believe it articulates what we all have, and continue to, go through. It still feels too early to analyse the good the bad and the ugly from a communications point of view, but I could not be prouder of my team and how they have been steadfast in their approach which, day in day out, has focussed on patients, the public and staff. 

Throughout this, we have managed to maintain high levels of public and staff engagement – which has been no mean feat. 

I would also highlight how, as a region, we mobilised  the communications effort to ensure consistency and impact – despite some people centrally not wanting us to do this.  

There are many challenges here, what was the biggest for you? 

One of the biggest frustrations, however, has been linked to announcements made during the daily briefings, that directly impacted on the NHS and its staff, without having any heads up. We had to change important procedures for safety reasons, like usage of PPE, very quickly. 

From a management perspective, what was new for you to have to implement? 

I suppose this would be the nature of a major incident. Typical incidents are short term – this has been high intensity over a long period; therefore, management approaches have needed to adapt to deal with resilience and continuity. 

We had to quickly create team ‘bubbles’ to reduce the number of people in the office on any given day and work out how to balance the needs and requirements of the job alongside adhering to the rules re social distancing etc. 

What positives would you like to share with our readers?

Much has been written over the years regarding lack of community cohesion and/or fractured society, and I think COVID:19 brought people together. Supporting and looking after each other, talking to neighbours, shopping for neighbours or those in need. Members of the public, schools and business have donated so much to the NHS it has been overwhelming and humbling in equal measure. The selflessness of people donating their time to make PPE for staff and patients has been incredible and who can forget the efforts of Captain Tom? 

One final but significant point I would make would be how amazing the media have been in our region. The support and collaboration we have had from our local journalists (print and broadcast) have been brilliant. They have worked with us, within the constraints we have had, to ensure we sensibly position the challenging and vital stories and have helped us to provide a clear message to the public throughout. 

 Any personal lessons learned? 

Get rest when you can and don’t worry about the ironing pile! Many of us who work in communications have had to keep working during Covid:19. Whether that is in or out of the office, key worker or not. I know that it has been impossible to have much if any, time off this year. But we still need to look after our resilience, mental health and professionalism. 

Claire Riley is the Executive Director of Communications and Corporate Affairs Northumbria Health NHS Foundation Trust. Claire has extensive experience in business, marketing and communications across both the public and private sectors. She was named as a ‘North East Marketing Great’ in 2017 after being included in the list of the 50 leading marketing professionals published by the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM).