What St John WA did to ensure comms could cope with COVID-19

Executive director for communications and brand shares the tools and process required to help this essential services provider respond to the COVID-19 crisis internally

Internal communications may not be the most glamourous task within the marketing function. But in a time of crisis, it plays a vital role in both distributing information and creating social cohesion among the workforce.

This is especially true for organisations that play a frontline role in responding to such crises. Throw into the mix a workforce of more than 10,000 working from 160 separate locations spread across the largest state in Australia, and the challenge of ensuring effective internal communications becomes so much greater again.

But this was exactly what was facing health and emergency services organisation, St John WA. As the state’s primary provider of high-quality ambulance and first aid services, the COVID-19 crisis presented an unprecedented challenge in terms communicating to a workforce that also included 8000 trained volunteers.

St John WA executive director for communications and brand, Aaron Crowther, said it became apparent as early as January that COVID-19 posed a unique challenge his organisation would need to prepare for.

“When it became clear this virus was going to impact Australia, I was aware we needed to equip our people with the greatest capability to latch onto information in a useful way as quickly as possible,” Crowther said.

At that time, the organisation had already been planning to rollout a new internal communications capability based around Yammer and Microsoft Teams. The initial phased approached was abandoned in favour of a rapid rollout that saw the entire solution stood up in 10 days.

“That gave us a capability to quickly share information, but also do it in a way that ensured we could continue to be visible as a leadership group. This was even more important as we were starting to move to remote working,” Crowther said.

A decision was taken to make participation in the new channels optional. But Crowther said he has been pleased with how rapidly workers have adopted the new tools.

“We had plans to launch in 2020 anyway, but when circumstances conspired, that gave people an obvious reason to start to embrace these tools regardless of what their previous experience had been,” he said. “Our clinical team had 1300 people join it within 21 minutes of the launch of that channel.”

Content play

Since then, marketing has been helping staff develop creative and interesting content. Crowther’s team has also created relevant COVID-19 related content, including interview-style webinars and a series called COVID Conversations, which features a range of people from around the world discussing how they are dealing with COVID-19 from various perspectives.

“In speaking to these people about what they were seeing we could try and glean some insights that could help our people,” Crowther said.

The initiative has also received strong executive support, including from CEO, Michelle Fyfe.

“One of the things I was conscious of was the need to consistently deliver communication, so our executives did a regular video piece with an ‘ask me anything’ session over Yammer that followed,” Crowther said. “So our people knew when the communications were coming, and they knew we were available to engage with them.”

Crowther has also implemented an analytics capability from SWOOP to monitor engagement levels. He reported sharing levels have been pleasing, with 74 per cent of posts being liked. Response rates on content are also sitting at 88 per cent after the first seven weeks, well above the global average.

“Teams that didn’t necessarily normally work together are sharing information in different ways,” he continued. “New teams are being spawned every day as people are starting to realise there is a great capability to share broadly.”

While the crisis is dominating the thinking of staff, the new tools are also enabling them to share more readily some of the more light-hearted aspects of their work.

“If you don’t give yourself an ability to smile and connect at a people-level it is very hard to sustain the energy and focus needed to deal with some of the more critical factors,” Crowther said.

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