Juggling two hats: Working in health care communications during COVID-19

A day that will forever be etched in my memory is Sunday, March 15, 2020. 

After enjoying a Saturday in Whistler filled with fresh snow and bluebird skies, I learned that the resort would be shuttering its operations the next day in response to the emerging threat of COVID-19. 

My team had been steadily working on coronavirus communications for over a month, but things felt different now. They were shifting from a threat to a crisis. I spent the night at our AirBnB glued to my phone. The messages in my inbox started to pile up overnight, as did my anxiety. 

As we drove back into the city early on that Sunday morning, I tethered my laptop to my husband’s cell phone and tried to awkwardly balance the keyboard on my lap so that I could start drafting an urgent all-staff message and an updated framework for our communications channels. 

We stopped to get fuel and had to visit six different gas stations on the North Shore before we could find one that was open for business. The voices on the radio were sounding more and more fearful. I was starting to fret. 

Was the economy going to collapse? Should my sister come home from California? Should my grandmother really be moving into her new seniors’ home right now? Did we actually need to go buy toilet paper? 

Oh, and who was supposed to be signing off on this all-staff message? 

Juggling two hats 

As we headed into the height of the crisis that week, one of our physician leaders said something that stuck with me: as health care professionals, more than ever before, we were going to find ourselves juggling, and having to reconcile, our personal and professional hats. 

Under our personal hat we would wear our feelings, fears and concerns as human beings. We would likely feel frightened about our own health and safety, and the heath and safety of those we love. 

But we would need to simultaneously don our professional hat, which would require quick and focused thinking and the need to translate rapidly-changing health policies into actions and behaviour changes to keep British Columbians safe. 

In other words, as our own hierarchy of needs was under siege by the virus, we would also be playing a critical role in helping to save lives. This would apply to frontline workers, but also to those of us working in communications. 

The next three months were the craziest months of my career. 

Fast-forward to June 2020

Although we’re not out of the woods yet, the crisis mode created by COVID-19 has subsided. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve gleaned about crisis communications. 

Wearing my hat as a professional communicator 

  1. You are not the subject matter expert. 

You are the communications expert. In a crisis, communicators walk a dangerous line if they allow themselves to interpret ambiguous policies or decisions. Define clear approval processes early on. Hold your subject matter experts accountable for verifying the As to your Qs. And if they are still waffling about the direction or decisions being made, make the call on whether communications may actually do more harm than good.

  1. You are the guardian and trustee of your organization’s communications channels. 

At the onset of the crisis, be clear about the purpose and cadence for each of your channels and then protect those channels unapologetically. People will be regularly coming at you with things they urgently “NEED” to communicate. Use caution when determining the appropriate timing and the right channel(s) to safeguard your audiences from confusion and information overload. Rely on tested and true best practices for crisis communications. 

  1. You will not have time to make it perfect. 

Pick your perfection battles very wisely. In the context of COVID-19, Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization emphasized: “Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management.” Find opportunities to seek feedback from your audiences and stakeholders and stay nimble. You will need to adapt in real-time and make changes on the fly. 

Wearing my hat as a human being

  1. You will not make everyone happy. 

In fact, you are probably going to piss some people off. We all respond differently in crisis situations. There will be tears, frustration and anger. And a lot of people will fancy themselves communications experts and may challenge your approach. Try not to take things personally, be confident in your communications skills and take comfort in knowing that you are doing the best you can in the circumstances. 

  1. Your professional peers will also become a critical part of your personal support network. 

Check in with one another regularly. Support one another with mini coffee breaks and counselling sessions. Remind one another to eat and drink (and even pee)! And give yourselves permission to laugh together at the insanity every once in awhile. (A quick shout out to Laurie Dawkins, Libby Brown and Pamela Gole – I would not have made it through the last few months without you)!

  1. You are not a robot. You are a human with basic needs.

You need water, food, sleep and exercise. Hold yourself accountable to these things – and don’t hesitate to ask your peers to hold you accountable too. (A “war room” stocked with chips, chocolate, and maybe even a bottle of tequila, will also help). Find a shoulder to cry on when you need one. And remember to put on your own seatbelt first, so that you can help others. 

Keep calm, carry on 

These are just a few of my learnings so far, but there will inevitably be more as we look in the rear-view mirror over the coming months. And while I hope another global pandemic is not in our future, there will always crises to tackle that threaten our own health and safety. As Dr. Bonnie Henry says: “be kind, be calm, be safe” – and remember that you’ll have two hats to wear. 

About the author:

Caeli Murray, MA, APR is on the board of directors for the Canadian Public Relations Society (Vancouver) and a member of the Senior Leaders Network. She has spent the last four months actively involved in B.C.’s response to COVID-19, working in communications for the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA) and its well-known programs, such as the BC Centre for Disease Control, BC Children’s & BC Women’s Hospitals, BC Cancer, BC Mental Health & Substance Use Services and BC Emergency Health Services. In her role as PHSA’s Director of Communications, Media Relations & Content Services, Caeli works alongside a team of talented communicators to engage and inform a workforce of 23,000 health care workers around the province and to communicate important public health information to British Columbians. She has held previous communications leadership positions with Vancouver Coastal Health, the BC Liquor Distribution Branch and various ministries within the B.C. government.