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Becoming more agile: How Blood Cancer UK’s pandemic lessons live on

1 July 2022

As communicators we have to balance lots of different demands at the same time, often at speed, and as the pandemic has shown us in unexpectedly challenging circumstances. What is important is that we have the foundations in place to be able to be agile and deliver what our audience needs when they need it most.

When heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano was asked what he thought was his single most important asset, his interviewer expected him to say it was the toughness of his jaw or his powerful right hook. But instead, Marciano pointed to his legs. Their strength was his key asset, he said, because they were the foundation that underpinned everything he did.

When I think about Blood Cancer UK’s response to the Covid pandemic, and the lessons we have taken from it, I think about Marciano’s legs. Because the key to our success hasn’t been the quality of our writing, the creativity of our ideas, or our willingness to speak truth to power. It’s been a weekly meeting.

We realised at the start of the pandemic that our community was likely to be particularly impacted. People with blood cancer tend to be worse affected by viruses because of their weakened immune systems, and there was no reason to think Covid would be any different. And so it has proved.

In March 2020, we began regular meetings of people across the charity to guide our work on the pandemic. This meeting proved to be the foundation for our work on our pandemic response and beyond, enabling us to consistently respond quickly and effectively, no matter what is thrown at us.

There are three things that have made these meetings so valuable:

  1. They’re action orientated, with a focus on pace. We make decisions in the meeting, assign actions, and hold each other to account for delivery.
  2. Every meeting begins with an update on what we’ve been hearing on our support line and on social media. This grounds us in the concerns of our community, and ensures these concerns are front of mind for every decision we make.
  3. We’ve broken down silos, to the point where it would often be difficult for an observer to tell which team each person is from. It was the nature of the emergency, I think, that forced us to go outside the tramlines of our job descriptions and have discussions as a group of people with different skills, rather than a group representing different bits of the organisation.

This approach has then enabled us to do three things:

Give people the information they need, quickly

Just after the Prime Minister’s press conference on March 16, 2020, we did a Facebook post with our take on what it meant. In the pre-pandemic days, we would have probably waited till the next day to make sure it had gone through the right level of sign-off, but in this case we felt we needed to say something straight away.

Blood Cancer UK, March 16, 2020 Facebook Post.
Coronavirus update - 16/03/2020
Following the Prime Minister’s press conference on Monday, March 16, we have updated our advice on the coronavirus for people affected by blood cancer.
If you have blood cancer and have a weakened immune system, we now advise that you stay at home for the next 12 weeks. This is because the coronavirus can have more serious effects on people with a weakened immune system.
Those with a compromised immune system include:
• People having chemotherapy, or who’ve had chemotherapy in the last 3 months.
• People having immunotherapy or other antibody treatments for cancer.
• People having targeted cancer treatments that can affect the immune system, such as protein kinase inhibitors.
• People who have had a bone marrow or stem cell transplant in the last 6 months, or who are still taking immunosuppression drugs.
• People with some types of blood cancer which affect the immune system, such as chronic leukaemia, lymphoma or myeloma, even if no treatment is being given.
If you’re not sure whether you have a compromised immune system, you should talk to your healthcare team as soon as possible to find out.
If you look after or live with someone who has blood cancer and has a compromised immune system, you should also consider staying at home for the next 12 weeks.
We understand that many people will be worried about the risk to their health, and about the prospect of being isolated in their home for so long. If you’d like more information, or just want someone to talk to, please call our free and confidential support line on 0808 2080 888 or email us at support@bloodwise.org.uk
Over the next few days, we’ll be thinking about what we can do as an organisation to support the blood cancer community at this extremely difficult time. 
We will also be updating our website as soon as we can with more detailed guidance for specific groups such as children with blood cancer, so please continue to visit it or follow our social media accounts for updates.

The response to it (around 2,000 comments and 3,700 shares) was like nothing we’d seen before. This told us people wanted information quickly, and this set the tempo for the next two years. We now have a way of working where if there is significant new news, we are often able to issue a public response very quickly.

This speeded up approach has also meant we have also developed a much higher level of comfort than we’d had previously with setting out what we didn’t yet know – especially in our writing. Combined with the fact that we used to believe people only wanted short blogs, but were able to use data to show that our audience were happy to read much longer pieces if the content was relevant this has transformed how we approach blogs. Our November 2020 blog on the Covid vaccine and our article on third doses in September 2021 both had almost 40,000 page views – numbers we wouldn’t have dreamed of before the pandemic. Something that we believe is down to understanding what people want, and understanding that when the picture isn’t clear, they want to know that it’s not clear

Be more creative

Our understanding of our community (gained from qualitative insights from our support line and social media, along with discussions with our Ambassadors and quantitative surveys) enabled us to quickly produce creative, topical content that reflected how they were feeling.

Our Love Actually-themed Christmas video focused on the importance of continuing to fund research despite the pandemic, for example.

Our response to news that Burberry were selling £90 face masks by changing the price of our own masks to £90 for a day; and our challenging of Noel Gallagher’s comments on facemasks used humour to engage audiences and make serious points.

Advocate for people with blood cancer

People with blood cancer have often felt overlooked by the Government, and we’ve seen it as part of our role to challenge this. We’ve challenged changes to shielding guidance, called for financial support for those who can’t work from home, and expressed concern about the roll-out of third vaccine doses.

This can feel uncomfortable. But having the key decision makers in our regular meeting and using the insights of our community has meant we’ve been able to get the balance right and the messaging out quickly.

We’ve had some great feedback for our pandemic response, whether it’s been our information, campaigning or creative content. But none of it would have been as effective if it hadn’t been for our regular meetings.

So the main communication lesson I’ve taken from the pandemic – and one I think is applicable for everyone working in charity communications – is that if you want to deliver consistently good comms that meets the needs of your community, you need to put the foundations in place that give you the best chance of success.

You need your own version of Marciano’s legs.

For more advice, ideas and inspiration to help you and everyone in your team thrive, check out the CharityComms ‘The evolving world of internal communications’ online conference on 20 July.

Banner Image: Farsai Chaikulngamdee on Unsplash

Richard Evans

deputy director for marketing and communications, Blood Cancer UK

Richard is deputy director for marketing and communications for Blood Cancer UK, where he has overseen the renaming/rebranding of the charity (from Bloodwise). He has previously led communications teams at Diabetes UK, The King’s Fund and World Cancer Research Fund. He is a trustee for the Point of Care Foundation, a former elected member of the Council of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, and the author of a biography of Basil Clarke, the father of the UK public relations industry.