Meet some of the GCS’s #ExtraordinaryWomen

As we celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD), we’ve reached out to the #ExtraordinaryWomen working on the front line Coronavirus (COVID-19) communications response.

Corina Sehmar

Corina Sehmar, Events and Communications Manager at Government Communications Service:

“Writing this blog to celebrate IWD has been hugely inspiring. There are so many incredible, diverse women in GCS, who are leaders in their field. Shining a light on just a few of them, who are working on the front line of communications, has been a privilege.”

We’re going to keep updating, so please get in touch if you have a story to share.

Here’s what they had to say…

Learning new skills

Alice Gulland, External Affairs Lead, Department for Education:

“Working on COVID-19 comms has been intense but also a great learning experience and development opportunity.

I lead DfE’s external affairs team and we have had to respond to increased stakeholder scrutiny throughout the pandemic. That has meant developing new ways to share stakeholder insight and adapting how we engage stakeholders to keep them informed, as well as forging new stakeholder relationships to reach wider audiences.

I have managed working on COVID-19 comms alongside caring for my two-year-old son which has meant him attending more than a few virtual meetings over the past year!”

Briony Biddle

Briony Biddle, Senior Strategic Communications and Marketing Manager, DFE:

“In October I moved to COVID-19 Higher Education (HE) comms. At the time we’d never done any marketing to this audience or even had a HE strategic comms team.

Five months later I’ve been part of a team that’s successfully run three phases of the #UniSafe campaign, working with Cabinet Office, DHSC and DfT daily and utilising paid media, influencers and partnerships to communicate to students, parents and HE providers.

It’s been brilliant to work on such a high profile campaign that’s helping to keep people safe during this pandemic.”

Patricia Welch

Patricia Welch, HR & Professional Development Manager to the Government Communication Service:

“Working during lockdown was one of the loneliest and stressful times of my life. Not being able to see and connect with friends and family was really difficult and emotionally draining. However, saving grace was the support and understanding of my team and focusing on supporting communication practitioners.

“One of my biggest triumphs was launching the Power of Choice talent programme to accelerate the development of high potential staff from underrepresented backgrounds. This, plus supporting the work of the wider profession allowed me to feel like I was making a difference and supporting my wellbeing at the same time.”

Niamh Reese

Niamh Reese, Office of the Secretary of State for Wales (OSSW), Communications Officer:

“My experience of working on the government’s COVID-19 communications response was quite surreal and eye-opening. I started my role at OSSW in September 2019, it being my first professional position after graduating from university, and not even six months in I was a part of a major cross-government crisis comms response.

It allowed me to experience the inner workings of government communications and I felt as though my skills were pushed to the limits almost straight away.

This experience has not only benefited me as I was able to prove to myself, and my new team, that I was ready for the tasks ahead!”

Making a difference

Sophie Jackson

Sophie Jackson, Communications Apprentice, HMRC:

“It has been a privilege to work on COVID-19 communications at HMRC while doing my apprenticeship. The team works at a fast pace to ensure communication is delivered on time and to a high quality.

I have grasped a better understanding of detailed scheme policy and learnt how to tailor communications to a variety of audiences.

Knowing the work I produce, such as stakeholder emails and social media posts, is supporting individuals across the nation is extremely rewarding.”

Tanaye Reid

Tanaye Reid, Campaigns Advisor, Ministry of Justice:

“In December 2020, I was part of the team delivering the Ministry of Justice’s first-ever UK-Africa Legal Services Virtual Trade Mission. The mission marked the beginning of a series of campaign activity aimed to support economic recovery in the legal sector post-Covid and level up opportunity across the country.

“Being the first of its kind this came with its challenges and pressures. Yet, the experience was enjoyable and provided a significant growth opportunity for me. As with any challenge, you tend to discover something new about yourself in the process. A key takeaway for me is to expect the unexpected and enjoy the journey in the here and now.”

Sophie Barber

Sophie Barber, COVID-19 Cross-Cutting Planning Lead, HMRC:

“Working on COVID-19 Comms, knowing that our efforts have been making a real difference to people’s lives and businesses throughout such a difficult time, has been the most rewarding period of my career so far.”

Victoria Leonard

Victoria Leonard, Media and Campaigns Manager, Northern Ireland Office:

“I led on COVID-19 communications for the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) throughout 2020, including on its business support campaign, which raised awareness of UK Government (UKG) support for NI businesses affected by Covid and promoted safe working practices.

In addition to this campaign, I was the NIO’s lead on cross-Whitehall Covid comms and Covid-related press office activity. I was proud to be helping local people and supporting my department’s communications efforts during this challenging time.

In a period in which Covid has forced people apart, I believe that the role of UKG communications has been absolutely critical in providing accurate information, promoting safety and signposting to support.”

Faaiza Ahmed

Faaiza Ahmed, Stategic communications officer, Department for Health and Social Care:

“I joined the Civil Service at the beginning of February 2021 as an SIO for the GCS Flex team, with my first placement in the COVID-19 vaccine strategic communications team at DHSC.

My role has been to oversee and coordinate a number of activities across government and various communications disciplines to ensure that the public are accurately informed on all things related to the COVID-19 vaccine – and ready to take up their jab when the offer comes.

Working at the heart of the government’s biggest ever vaccination programme – and playing an active part in promoting the way out of the pandemic – has been both hugely exciting and rewarding.”

Juggling working with childcare

Rachel Forster, Head of COVID-19 Comms, HMRC:

“Juggling childcare, work and studying has felt really tough at times, but the camaraderie of colleagues pulling together has made it all possible.

I’m massively proud of what our team has achieved during COVID – supporting millions of businesses while working from spare rooms and kitchen tables right across the UK.

So many of the team were homeschooling while taking calls, making dinner while drafting comms and all manner of other multitasking feats – thank you everyone!”

Stephanie Hill

Stephanie Hill, Digital Content Producer, Cabinet Office:

“Looking after 2 children while working full-time has not been easy. We made it work by trying to stick to a routine with a bit of exercise before the live lessons start and a walk at lunch time to get some fresh air.

Our dining room table has become our office desk and it can be hard to find a silent corner to think or have a chat, without distractions. I have appreciated the flexibility offered by the Cabinet Office and being able to work from home during the pandemic.

The shift to the virtual communication team mentioned in the COVID-19 advisory panel report has happened really fast in this time of crisis.”

Kohinoor Meghji

Kohinoor Meghji, Head of HR and Workforce Strategy, GCS:

“Leading on strategic resourcing across the GCS, I’ve worked with managers to move communication experts overnight to other government departments in response to the critical work on COVID-19.

“The sheer pace and determination to pull together and deliver together have been exceptional. I couldn’t be more proud to work with such committed colleagues who bring a diversity of skills and experience to their work.”

Emily Tofield

Emily Tofield, Group Director of Communications & Information Services, Ministry of Justice:

“At work I have led the multi-channel communications response to COVID-19 across the justice system. All our work has been about maintaining public confidence, supporting citizens, staff, service users and their families – and ultimately trying to save people’s lives and livelihoods.

At home, I’m a mum to three children – two school aged boys who have missed their classmates and a toddler who’s ready to go out in the world and play!”

Kate Whitty Johnson, Head of External Affairs, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:

“Work on the response to Covid-19 has required agility, collaboration, empathy and resilience building. This hasn’t just been in the work we are doing to listen to and respond to our stakeholder and sector needs, but also supporting our teams and looking after our families throughout a testing time for all.

Caring for a 2 year old, home schooling a 6 year old and moving house during this period has been an added personal challenge. It is a high-pressured environment and you really want to be available for colleagues, stakeholders and of course your family during what is a testing time for all, leading to lots of competing demands – luckily I have a great team at work and home that pitch in and support one another.”

    Image credits:
  • Briony Biddle (1)
  • Patricia Welch (2)
  • Niamh Reese (3)
  • Sophie Jackson (4)
  • Tanaye Reid (5)
  • Sophie Barber (6)
  • Victoria Leonard (7)
  • Stephanie Hill (8)
  • Kohinoor Meghji (9)
  • Emily Tofield (10)