BOOK MARK: How a comms team pulled together a book to mark the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic will prove to be turning point in history. There was the UK before it hit and after. Oxford University hospitals director of communications Matt Akid talks of how the pandemic has been captured in the staff’s own words.

Beyond Words is a unique book of images, many taken by frontline NHS staff at Oxford University Hospitals (OUH), which reflect their personal and professional experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Our aim was to create a book to chronicle an extraordinary time in the lives of all staff working at OUH and to produce something of high quality which would show that in-house NHS communications and graphic design teams can match anything from the commercial PR world – at a fraction of the cost.

The total budget was less than £10,000, to cover the costs of professional printing of the book, which was kindly provided by a grant from Oxford Hospitals Charity whose remit is to support patients and staff at OUH.

The book was written and designed in-house by our Communications and Oxford Medical Illustration (OMI) teams – with photos provided by OMI, Oxford Hospitals Charity and our own staff.

We wanted to enable staff to submit their own photographs for inclusion in the book to document their own experience, and we also wanted to thank staff for their incredible service during the COVID-19 pandemic by enabling them to order a free hard copy of the book.

All of this fitted in with our Chief People Officer’s Growing Stronger Together – Rest, Reflect, Recover programme to support the health and wellbeing of all staff working at OUH as we emerge from the pandemic.

In April 2021 we launched an eBook called Stories from the COVID-19 Pandemic – #OneTeamOneOUHwhich told the story of OUH’s response to the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. We wanted to help our staff to make sense of their experiences by telling their stories, to share how they felt, and to talk about what they did as individuals and in teams.

And so we invited all staff to submit their contributions in order to truly reflect the experiences of our people. More than 50 teams and individuals submitted their stories and many were included in the final eBook.

Based on this evidence that there was a genuine appetite from staff for communal storytelling in order to reflect on personal and shared experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic, we came up with the idea of a printed book of photographs.

Jackie Love, our Head of Design, came up with the title of the book, Beyond Words, to reflect the fact that these experiences can be difficult to put into words but powerful images can tell a story and evoke emotions.

Our strategy was to encourage staff engagement in the project and so on the NHS Birthday on 5 July 2021 we communicated a call to all staff to submit their photographs. We also collated images taken during the pandemic by our in-house teams while Jackie developed the creatives, the look and feel of the book, structured around our six OUH values of compassion, respect, delivery, excellence, learning and improvement.

We made the decision to publish the book in January 2022 as we approached the two-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 positive patients being admitted to our hospitals, in order to maximise media interest and as a milestone for our staff.

We also invited staff to order a free copy of the book to meet our key objective of the book being a thank you. We had a pre-ordering window in November 2021 and a further ordering window in January 2022 after the book was published. We also worked with our Voluntary Services team and with Oxford Hospitals Charity on the logistics of distributing hard copies of the book to staff working across four hospital sites and at multiple other community locations.

3,500 OUH staff ordered a copy of Beyond Words, both before and after its publication in January 2022, and we have also had overwhelmingly positive feedback from staff about the book and free copies being made available as a thank you gesture.

Helen Doling, a nurse on our Haematology Day Treatment Unit, said: “Truly amazing book. Very grateful for my copy, providing a lasting memory of dedication and hard work of so many in such a difficult time.”

Daljit Dhariwal, a surgeon in our oral and maxillofacial surgery team, said: “A really fantastic record of one great team coming together through the adversity of COVID to deliver the best care for our patients.”

Beyond Words has also been read online more than 4,000 times since launch by readers as far afield as the USA, Australia and India.

And it has attracted positive national media coverage by BBC Breakfast News, as well as local media pick-up.

We’re proud of the book and we’re thrilled it’s been shortlisted in the ‘Best Publication’ category of the CIPR Excellence Awards – fingers crossed for the awards ceremony in June .

Matt Akid is director of communications at Oxford Universities Hospitals NHS Trust.

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