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Comms, cancer care and COVID

What is it like to work in the field of internal communication in Australia?

What’s the reality of establishing an internal communication function during a pandemic?

Sarah Blinco is Head of Internal Communication at Icon Group, Australia’s largest private cancer services provider.

She’s written for the All Things IC blog to share her experiences from the past few years with you. 

You can find her online via sarahblinco.com.

I’ll hand you over…

Sarah-Blinco-guest post

Comms, cancer care and COVID

I know as internal comms professionals that you can look back on the past couple of years and spot moments that range across the spectrum – from tiring and challenging (or downright impossible) to funny, exciting, and proud.

‘Funny’ for me, for instance, was just last week during a working from home day. I happened to have two dogs in my one-bedroom flat. They’d been silent all morning, then just as I joined a team meeting heaving with guests, the fire alarm rang out at mine.

As I scrambled to maintain composure while fumbling for the camera and microphone ‘off’ buttons, two frantic white fluff balls darted in and out of focus behind me on the screen, squealing over the top of my colleagues’ conversation. [insert my most used 2020-22 emoji here: 🤦🏼

Proud, would be developing an internal comms function from scratch for a fast-paced healthcare company during a crippling global pandemic where rarely has one week looked like the last.

Establishing internal comms during COVID

In January 2021, I was tasked with establishing an official internal comms (IC) function to support around 3,000 staff at a wonderful company, Icon Group (icongroup.global), headquartered in Brisbane.

Icon is Australia’s largest private cancer services provider with a swiftly growing reach into the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

Our Executive team recognised the need to formalise IC before the business grew further and to support whatever we would face next with COVID.

Our key IC aims were to amplify connection and reduce ‘noise’ to clear the path for critical messages. We began with ‘simple wins’: establish a news feed on the intranet as a single source of truth for company updates; and design a series of curated monthly e-newsletters for our seven business divisions.

Along with the creation of new channels which would consolidate messages and reduce email traffic, we would formalise strategy for how, when and where messages would be disseminated going forward.

It was exciting work, but not without obvious IC challenges. Our staff audience looks different from site to site: our people are in hospitals, pharmacies, at chemotherapy compounding facilities, and in office roles which ‘overnight’ became home office roles.

Language and culture differences must be accounted for too, and engagement is that much harder to achieve without the ability to travel and develop face to face relationships.

COVID challenges for our cancer care business

While we face differences across our roles and regions, there are two things we all have in common at Icon: our mission to deliver the best care possible, to as many people as possible, as close to home as possible; and our collective nemesis, COVID.

The difficulties encountered by our frontline teams are significant: restrictive PPE, staff shortages, fatigue, and the ramifications of ever-changing Government rules. But cancer keeps going despite a pandemic.

Last year, every Friday for many months straight, a fresh and usually urgent comms requirement dropped for one or more of our audiences. So much for ‘Fridays being quieter’!

Lockdowns and border closures, along with mandates on mask wearing and vaccinations were top of the agenda. I’d join an 8am call (that had sometimes appeared in my diary overnight) with Icon’s Exec and medical, HR and WHS leaders; we’d discuss an approach and make it happen.

We worked at pace and shouldered some stress, but it was rewarding – especially to be in an IC role that ultimately pulls the messaging together, supports the direction for leadership, and ensures people have the critical information they need.

Recognition: a key driver of engagement

Mid-year we took the decision to fast-track the implementation of a reward and recognition (R&R) platform into the business, with a view to emphasising how important recognition is in challenging times.

Adapting our current R&R program (that was a split of on and offline activity) and aligning it in various languages, proved to be anything but straightforward. However, it was a proud moment to discover that over 4,000 eCards of gratitude, celebration and hope were sent via the platform during its launch campaign just a few months later.

eCard example Icon

LinkedIn Annual Awards post

Additionally, over 1,000 employees were nominated via the new platform for Icon’s Annual Awards. It was an honour for me to be named as one of a handful of finalists for those awards – recognised for leading IC with passion and purpose.

I was pipped at the post by a colleague who had facilitated emergency deliveries of life-saving chemotherapy to several hospitals during the devastating floods in New South Wales earlier in the year. Given that the disaster meant all roads and airports were closed, he had his work cut out for him. He managed a miracle, and the chemo was delivered – I wholeheartedly applaud his award win!

The content highlighted in our R&R space stands testament to the value of engagement vehicles like this and has certainly paved the way for positive sentiment, even during our most difficult of days.

What’s ahead for Icon’s internal comms

At Icon, I’ve had success implementing new channels and strategy (and corralling many a ‘rogue email’).

Our internal campaigns continue to gain traction too. Just recently for World Cancer Day (WCD) our coordinated internal and external comms activity saw hundreds of bespoke WCD eCards sent, staff publishing moving personal blogs, high engagement on our internal community forums, and trending conversation on LinkedIn, led by Icon staff.

LinkedIn WCD coverage

I still have a way to go on this IC journey, and no doubt there lies ahead further fun surprises, unique challenges, and ‘professional’ video calls complete with yelping dogs.

For anyone starting out in a new role leading IC, I’d share the advice that was given to me: don’t lose sight of your grand vision to solve all your comms problems, but start with just one – score a win, then another.

That’s just fine, and I continue to live by it.

We’re so fortunate in this line of work. It’s a privilege to have the chance to inform, inspire and connect people.
For me that rings particularly true, given that the people I serve through IC are quite literally doing all they can to care for sick patients and cure cancer.

Post author: Sarah Blinco.

Thank you Sarah for sharing your thoughts with All Things IC’s readers. You’ve done so much in a short space of time and should feel really proud, well done.

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First published on the All Things IC blog 17 February 2022.

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