Internal Communications through a Pandemic


Advancing New Pathways for Greater Engagement and Purpose

June 3, 2022

By Kelsey Huwaldt, 2022-23 HCNW At-Large Director

We have all heard: communications should start with your employees. They are your brand ambassadors, your champions, your frontlines. We all believed it and wanted to build strategy that way. But, in 2020, it became more true than ever before.

The guidance and regulations around COVID were changing daily, if not more, as we learned more about this virus. The public looked to health care employees through these frantic moments, and getting employees information, and quickly, became more important than ever.

As the pandemic raged on, our resiliency was tested like never before, which meant our need to connect and support employees became one of the top priorities.

At OHSU, I am lucky to be part of an organization that always valued internal communications, but I even saw our role grow. We became part of the solution to any issue, and a focus for how we move forward. All this change meant we as internal communicators had to grow and adapt.


It’s one of the very first principles we learn in communications: Know your audience. This is no different in internal communications, but the pandemic even further crystallized those audience nuances.

For OHSU, thousands of employees suddenly became 100% remote workers. Thousands more were on the frontlines, in person. Their experiences, their needs and how they digest information became so very different.


One of the audiences we needed to better understand and support are our managers. Employees often lean on and trust their managers more than top leaders. Managers are also a direct line to employees on not just operational needs like what PPE is required, but on the fabric and culture of the organization.


OHSU leaders firmly believe in the African Proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.”

As we faced burnout and exhaustion, and for many a sense of isolation, hearing what our employees needed became even more critical. Two-way communication became a priority.

OHSU is also at a turning point in our culture. As over-used as it is, we really are facing unprecedented times. We needed to re-root ourselves in our purpose and values.

To help meet both the need for two-way feedback and to re-invigorate our mission, in the past year, we launched a culture and brand project based in six guiding principles.

  1. Member engagement
  2. Manager tools
  3. Leadership champions
  4. Clear feedback channels
  5. Plain language
  6. Meaningful, memorable content

OHSU’s managers were key to this entire project. We launched monthly all-managers meetings where everyone could hear from top leaders, but also ask questions, share values, moments and get updates on initiatives.

We also created a relay huddle so that questions could be asked and, as well, set up an anonymous online feedback form. Then, in the next week, all of the feedback and questions are shared with the executive leadership team and depending on the topic, subject matter experts. Information gets used to drive messaging in the coming weeks but is also meant to give managers a direct line to leadership. Even when we may not pass in the hall or in a meeting as easily.

Kelsey Huwaldt, MBA, is an HCNW At-Large Director and serves as Associate Director, Internal Communications at Oregon Health & Science University.


June 2024