Thought leadership: Dan Knowles on overcoming challenges to communicate during the pandemic

COVID-19 has created significant communications challenges for organisations. In a series of thought leadership interviews Fortitude is exploring how organisations have adapted to ensure its communications remains effective. To launch we interviewed Dan Knowles, CEO of mental health charity Oxfordshire Mind.

Oxfordshire Mind experienced a significant increase in demand for its services in 2020, alongside having to adapt to ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions operationally. We discussed how the charity has communicated and overcome challenges in 2020 and what insights the charity will take forward this year.

Digital tools

Managing a constantly changing landscape has created challenges for everyone, including charities. 

The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty and not knowing what Government guidelines will be announced from one week to the next,” said Mr Knowles. Currently we do not know when the vaccine will be fully rolled out and when our staff will be vaccinated, and our sessions can return to being face to face.”

The pandemic has accelerated Oxfordshire Mind’s digital service delivery provision and use of technology. 

In 2020 our information line, which is managed by staff and volunteers has had 19,000 incoming calls,” said Mr Knowles. Normally they would be handled in the office, but this year they have been managed from home which required a rapid shift in the use of technology. 

Staff have been using Teams and Zoom regularly for meetings and webinars and we have even conducted recruitment interviews and staff inductions digitally and it has proved to be very effective. 

Traditionally our national conference is attended by around 150 people, but in 2020 it was held digitally, and it meant more people could take part. More than 800 people attended UK wide and it was brilliant. It saved time on travel and meant we could connect with more people. 

We have also overcome communications challenges in support of our housing service by handing out mobile phones to people who did have one, so they keep connected with the Oxfordshire Mental Health Partnership.

Clear messaging

Providing helpful mental health guidance and signposting to support during the pandemic has increased the need for strong online communications. 

The need for clear and concise messaging on social media has never been more important,” said Mr Knowles. We have had to communicate a lot of practical advice, support, and wellbeing guidance to a lot of people. We have also had to interrupt national Government guidelines locally and ensure we are here to help. 

Our messaging has been well received and we have worked with partners to make sure our messages can be communicated to people that may not otherwise received them. Partnerships are part of everything we do. The best example of this is the Oxfordshire All In’ movement at the grassroots of the third sector. It is a support network for individuals, communities and organisations to help each other and work together.” 

Positive storytelling

With an increase in distressing, and or, negative stories in the media during the pandemic Mr Knowles believes the value of positive content has significantly increased. 

Communications has become even more important this year,” he said. 

I think as a charity we need to get more positive stories out to help engage and create change. Positive stories are so important to provide balance, some of the work that our volunteers do is remarkable, and we need to tell those stories.”

Increased online audience 

Research has found COVID-19 has accelerated companies’ digital communications growth by a global average of six years, with 5.3 years being the UK average. 

Oxfordshire Mind’s has seen its website traffic spike, with a 347% increase in new visitors compared to last year. It has been achieved via PR, organic search, and social media referrals. 

Mr Knowles said: It has been hard for people to cope during the lockdowns and it has been important that we adapted our service to continue to help. Our website traffic increased significantly during the lockdown and only see people using digital communications continuing.”

Hybrid communications

Mr Knowles said Oxfordshire Mind will provide a strong hybrid support model in the future which adopts the trends developed during the pandemic. 

We won’t go back to how we worked before COVID-19,” he said. Many people now want access to support digitally and so we will maintain that to a higher level than before. Once the vaccination has been rolled out, we will resume face to face support, but our service will be a mix between in person and online. 

Before the pandemic 50% of our inquiries were via the phone and 50% were made digitally. Since COVID-19 that has changed to 80% online and just 20% via the phone. People now want access to support digitally and we will provide it.” 

Communicating wellbeing

COVID-19 has highlighted existing social inequalities, which have become heighted during the pandemic. 

People who are socially deprived or are of non-white ethnicity have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” said Mr Knowles. The demand for our services and the complexity of the inquiries we are receiving has increased. 

It’s important that charities and service providers continue to collaborate, and I’d like to see Oxfordshire All In continue to grow. By sharing best practice and experience we can leverage our skills for the benefit of Oxfordshire residents.”

Internal communications

In addition to supporting the public Oxfordshire Mind has increased its staff wellbeing provisions. 

Looking after staff wellbeing has never been more important and we have introduced schemes including an increase in annual leave entitlement, wellbeing events, informal check-ins with colleagues and increased internal communications,” said Mr Knowles. 

Power of communications 

Oxfordshire Mind is committed to promoting good mental health via the provision of high-quality services and campaigning for positive change. 

We won’t give up until everyone experiencing a mental health problem gets both support and respect,” said Mr Knowles. Communications is essential to us and helps us share wellbeing advice and support to so many people quickly and effectively. This year has demonstrated the importance of strong communications and we will continue to use it to connect with and support people.” 

Get in touch

If you are struggling with your mental health contact Oxfordshire Mind via: 

01865 247788 or info@​oxfordshiremind.​org.​uk

If you would like to discuss how communications could help you please can us here.

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