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Webcasts | COVID-19

Replay: Public relations and communications strategies for the care sector

April 28, 2020

Lyle Steffensen, National Practices Leader for Care Solutions at Marsh, interviewed Ruth Callaghan, COVID-19 Lead for Strategic Communications Firm, Cannings Purple  on how to help NFP and Care organisations manage communications both internally and externally to facilitate an effective response to COVID-19 challenges.

Each question and answer below ties to the Pandemic Response LifeCycle which can be accessed here.  

Pandemic lifecycle response phase – Exponential pandemic growth & business interruption

Your challenges: Employee wellbeing and productivity

LS: How do you ensure staff and volunteers are informed in the rapidly changing environment of updates to clinical steps and procedures?

RC: Since the beginning of this crisis, we knew that our elders would be more vulnerable to COVID 19, which made all staff and visitors potential disease carriers. Organisations need to engage staff in the conversation to not only inform them on what is required to keep them safe but the residents as well. They also say need to be clear about what conversation they have with anyone else they encounter during their day, including residents and their family. All parties need to be in the communication chain because if any one point breaks it can potentially become fatal. Some organisations have had to recreate or reorganise the communication channel and internal communications process, such as creating a microsite and SMS system dedicated to COVID 19 updates, and having information in different languages for multilingual employees. A lot of movement has also had to take place to upskill staff to deal with responding to COVID-19 as a continuously evolving challenge rather than the already existing clinical expectation and training they might already have.

LS: Do you agree that the focus has just been on clinical health and disease prevention? How do you equip organisations to share risk-related information with residents, family and external parties (such as media) other than what has been provided clinically?

RC: This is a psychosocial challenge as well as a health challenge. The psychosocial challenge is that some people can get very distressed at any change in routine, particularly people who have dementia or a limited understanding of what is happening and are now required to take additional steps for their own safety. Some people need to be motivated to action, so organisations need to get them worried enough about what they were doing before that they change a habit or a pattern — but at the same time try not to make them panicked or afraid. There are also people that are quite upset by the situation while others can develop destructive behaviours and not follow new protocols. Organisations need to work with staff so they understand the range of behaviours to expect and to provide strategies for those behaviours. Emotions such as panic or depression can be very infectious and easy to spread through the facility/organisation, which makes it crucial to be able to manage these reactions with clear communication about support available, and the right ways to respond.

LS: How do you support your staff to both be able to continue to be effective in their job but also protect their own emotional wellbeing?

RC: This is going to be a huge challenge going forward. Right now, the organisations that are doing well are those that have a good residual corporate trust. Companies that came into the COVID-19 crisis with staff feeling the organisation was honest, empathetic, interested and supportive have found having these more complex conversations easier. However, those organisations with low residual trust and a poor culture have experienced greater levels of confusion, distrust and absenteeism. This will be an ongoing challenge and it is important to ensure corporate trust is imbedded in organisation not just throughout the crisis but also going forward.

LS: Do you have any advice about rostering and how to manage continuity of care when staff or residents become sick? How do you communicate that within your staff so they continue to be empowered and work effectively?

RC: There has been a shift for many organisations to start to think about where the priority is in their organisation. The front line has become more important and it is putting a lot of pressure on those employees who can remain engaged during this crisis. Organisations need to look at where they have more capacity such as people in reserves to bring in if staff are potentially ill with COVID-19. Organisations also need to think about alternating teams or having staff work only in one facility to minimise cross over. These complex organisational questions, which did not seem important a month ago, now need to be the focus in every organisation.

LS: How should businesses look to structure their organisations to be more resilient to future waves of this kind of epidemic? What kind of tools and techniques can they use to support their operational change?

RC: The next 2-3 months is the crucial time to be organised, as there is a risk of a second wave in a few months or a spike at the end of winter. There is a small window over the next quarter to make sure the workforce is across all infection control and clinical issues as well as completing any training or upskilling required. The second issue is around the digital competency of the workforce. A pressing issue is how to minimise contact between aged care population and people who may pose a risk to them. Digital means are a way to overcome this, such as doctors conducting appointments via telehealth, and staff need to be trained to use these methods. The digital competency of management staff is also crucial, as they will need engage different channels of communication as well as ensuring staff are receiving communications and completing training. This will put managers in a better position to reassure everyone promptly and with certainty.

LS: How you deal with the issue of employees that work across multiple homes and organisations?

RC: It is a big challenge, as you cannot ask an employee not to work in multiple homes so an allowance must be made. A lesson can be taken from the mining sector, as they have been clear that the risk to them, in terms of FIFO work, is that of the lowest common denominator. If one employee is not operating correctly then everyone is at risk. There is a sense that every employee has to operate at a level that makes everyone else in the industry comfortable. It is a difficult conversation but everyone needs to be clear about what other organisations are doing and if one is doing less to ensure staff are protected it will be harder for an employee to move into another workplace. This means they have to trust that the other organisations are operating under the same protocols.

LS: How should your organisation be sharing about its position on COVID 19? What tone should you be taking in communications?

RC: There is an inclination of some organisations to not want to go too public as they may become a target for the media. In this situation with heightened scrutiny, organisations should be the one telling their story first rather than having it defined for you by someone else. At the minimum, there should be something on an organisation’s website explaining their position on COVID 19. They need to be clear about the steps being taken to protect staff and residents and be open to any questions and concerns. Organisations need to be on the front foot and be overt in their communication.

LS: There has been a variety of responses such sending text messages and emails in regards to visiting policies. The simple messages seem to be the most effective. What do you think about the common sense approach in regards to this?

RC: If the motivation is to get the message to the correct people, be clear about their position, and demonstrate empathy and care, then the communication will be heading in the right direction. When an organisation’s communication is defensive and evasive, people will respond negatively. However, you also need to remember that there will always be people that react badly or with extreme negativity, so there is a challenge for organisations to shift thinking and move to constant, clear and empathetic communication even if there are detractors. Organisations should explain what they do and do not know and that it is fluid environment and ask people to adapt as they do throughout the time.

LS: Is that the same approach to media and the rest of society? Would you provide the same communications that you provide to residents to the media?

RC: Organisations should be aware that any external message to relatives or clients is effectively a media message as there is a seamless shift between what is public and what is promoted. They should not put anything into a letter that they would not be comfortable having to discuss with the media. This level of scrutiny will not last forever and the interest level in the aged care arena will decline. However, this public position could be the way aged care providers are perceived for some time. Organisations will either be criticised for doing too little to late or too much too early, so organisations need to have a position on both of these extremes. Challenges will come from organisations who have struggled with their communication, as people will be less likely to trust them in the next phase.

LS: For organisations without access to a communications budget, what is a good resource for them to be able to manage external parties and what communication they put out?

RC: A good place to start is with the peak bodies as they have several timely and helpful communications such as LASA, ACIA and the Department of Health updates. Organisations should look at both state and federal health resources to observe what kinds of messages they have and use them as a template, especially in regards to the way they are structured, the clarity and the detail at the top of the page. A communications budget is not necessarily required; organisations just need to be empathetic and clear. An example is the requirement for family members to have a flu vaccine to visit. There will be a lot of confusion over this and organisations need to think about what messages they are sending out. Effective methods to communication this including having FAQs and Q&As on both your internal and external intranets and websites, but also considering ways to share the rationale with families to engender support.

LS: If you had to summarise what is the key message for providers what would it be?

RC: Be clear, be concise and be empathetic. Remember that any communication you are delivering affects people’s wellbeing, dignity and their family.

LS: Do you have any ‘go to’ resources you would recommend providers take the time to review?

RC: I think the Centers for Disease Control advice around communicating during an outbreak is a really useful source of information about the psychological and social challenges of this kind of issue: https://www.cdc.gov/eis/field-epi-manual/chapters/Communicating-Investigation.html

You are also welcome to follow our regular updates both on Covid-19 and the broader communications challenges for the aged care at our Cannings Purple blog, The268: https://news.canningspurple.com.au/covid-19-means-we-must-communicate-better-than-ever/

We trust you have found this useful. The video recording of the Q&A is available above. If you have any further questions please feel free to contact Lyle Steffensen.

If you would like to register for future sessions within this series, please refer to our upcoming sessions below, which are held at 11:30am AEST every Tuesday and Thursday for a limited time.

Thursday 7th May - Workplace Risk Issues for Care Providers

Tuesday 12th May - Cyber Risk for Care Providers

Thursday 14th May - Legal Liability Risk for Aged Care Providers

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