A moment of quiet reflection

On Sunday it will be a day of reflection and remembering the 22 people who lost their lives in the Manchester Arena terrorist attack and the many, many people who were affected by what happened. It is hard to think that five years has gone by as I can remember the details of that night as clear as if it had been yesterday.

The initial call and the quickly dawning realisation that this was something so serious. I was thinking about all those who were caught up in what had happened as I drove into work. The journey seemed to last a lot longer as my mind went through all the things that needed to be done the moment I arrived in the office. There was a lot that needed to be done and in the speed you could lose the focus on what really mattered.

What we were dealing with was the most terrible moment in people’s lives. It was an horrific and brutal attack and things would not be the same again for many. Care and attention to detail was critical as was making sure that any communication prioritised talking about the people affected by what had happened. It is what transformed my approach to crisis communication, and is what drives me to try and improve what organisations do when the worst happens.

It is hard to find the positive in such a brutal and horrific situation but there are amazing foundations and work that have been set up in memory of those who lost their lives Figen Murray has tirelessly campaigned for Martyn’s law. The Together Forever Trust supports young people in memory of Chloe and Liam, and the Megan Hurley Foundation is doing similar work to support others. Such work is a began of light and hope in the darkness that descended on 22 May 2017.

My wish from this terrible situation is that organisations and communicators take another look at their crisis communication plans. Check whether they are really focusing on the right things. Look at where your support to those affected is. Read Lucy Easthope’s book on the aftermath of disasters and the impact on people. Spend a little longer considering whether you have the right words to use before you speak about any issue or incident that affects people. Be more human.

My heart will be with all those families and friends who lost loved ones as they face a difficult weekend. Quiet contemplation will be my approach to the anniversary. I will light a candle as I have every year and will remember them.

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A few little words

Recent days have shown just how important the words we choose are. The Government minister who said people should work more hours or get a new job to address the cost of living crisis found this out. The sentiment conveyed in the few words that were spoken had a huge impact.

As a communicator you can imagine that I am going to talk about the importance of words and how they are used, and you are right I mention it a lot. It is also our professional responsibility to check words that are being used, narratives that develop and how the business talks to employees, stakeholders and the media. We can explain how words may be interpreted or misinterpreted.

In a busy world it is easy to throw down some words, a phrase or a sentence without really considering what it means, how it looks and most importantly what impact it could have on those connected with the issue. Taking a moment to step back and reflect can seem like a luxury when in fact it is a necessity.

From a personal perspective the two weeks since my Mum suddenly died have been punctuated with words and messages sent from friends, clients, colleagues and even some people that I didn’t know. I can honestly say that they have had a huge impact on me. It is safe to say they have had a disproportionate impact for just a few words. Why is that?

There are a few reasons. They have made me feel less alone with this terrible grief that I am dealing with. They have brought a connection to people on a human level. They have been packed with genuine sentiments. They have been carefully chosen to try to bring me some comfort.

All this is what we should be doing when we are faced with producing some words, key messages or a narrative around an incident or issue. When we are faced with a crisis we can become overly focused on processes, procedures and policies. In fact, it is the people and the human connection that we should be building even from the biggest multinational. Words can break down barriers and make a connection that stretches across the globe.

My ask is that you remember the importance of this even with the shortest statement or just a handful of words. Even within these you have the chance to make a positive impact on people’s lives.

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My Mum, my support, my best friend

This is not the normal blog post I do and may just be a selection of thoughts. For that I apologise but as writing is the only thing I know and the only way I can deal with things I am attempting to make sense of the past week.

The reality is that there is no sense to the past two days, is it really only two days without you Mum. This last 48 hours has felt like a lifetime. A lifetime of pain, darkness and loss.

This time last week I was buying birthday cake, wrapping Mum’s present and planning me and my Dad doing an afternoon tea for her. Today we are planning her funeral and wondering how life can carry on.

I had 51 years of fantastic times and memories that will be some comfort in the future. At the moment all I can see are those short 20 minutes where my life split into the old life and whatever comes next.

My Mum was a very private person but was a phrase I keep using ‘a force of nature’. She produced amazing artworks and wrote for no one but herself and her close family. I have so many things that she has made, painted or created that are in every room of our house. I can’t comprehend that innovative, creative and unique thinking has left this world.

I have been so incredibly touched by all the messages and kind words. I wish I could have the strength to respond to everyone but I can’t find the words. Please just know that every thought you send our way, every prayer and every message is so very welcomed and special to us.

I could write a book about my Mum and perhaps in time I should. So I won’t keep rambling here. But for those who has been through the darkness I am experiencing your messages mean a lot. It gives me a little hope that I will find a way forward. For those who are blessed to have a Mum in their lives for me please send a message, call her or give her a hug.

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Culture, sexism and politics

Bad behaviour at work is something that affects every organisation and business. Workplaces are made up of people and that brings problems. Everyone is different and that is for both good and bad.

The situation at Westminster is not a surprise as if you leave things unchecked and pay little regard to having necessary checks and balances around the work environment bad behaviour will continue. It appears that as the world has been moving on political life has been stuck in the past.

It is frustrating to see the criticisms levelled at police culture and particularly that of the Metropolitan Police in recent months from people operating in a questionable workplace. In the Met Police’s case it ultimately led to the person at the top leaving. But how could that happen at Westminster?

Everyday there are more allegations and eyebrow raising comments about how it is for those working in and around government. I have heard similar stories of misogyny and sexist behaviour from those working in Westminster over the years. It appears that culture has been allowed to flourish and for that all those in senior positions have to take some responsibility.

So what next? Things need to change and soon. It is not acceptable for these situations to continue and for the same conversation to be had in another 10 years. If action is not taken then politics will become segregated from he rest of the society and it risks becoming an irrelevance.

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Taking the blinkers off

Of course PR is all about reputation, or is it? I was given the opportunity of talking about the role that reputation should, or shouldn’t, play in crisis communication and response at a CIPR event this week. It may seem obvious to say that reputation is at the heart of PR but when you are developing a crisis plan do we have to think differently?

PR and communication is continually challenged by ethical dilemmas. It is one of the sure things for every one of us, that we will be put in a difficult position where we need to review what approach we take. Ensuring we work to the highest professional standards is essential for us as individuals, for the profession as a whole, and also for the people who may be caught up in your crisis.

I say ‘your crisis’ but it really isn’t. When something goes wrong, a disaster happens or a problem occurs it is not just your crisis it is a crisis for every person that is involved or connected to it. Remembering that is important when you are looking at what communication actions to take, what words to use and how to advice those leading the response from the business. At a moment of crisis is when communicators are under the most pressure and have to be ready and able to respond. It is a time when communication becomes critical whether it is saving lives, protecting property or maintaining trust and confidence.

If our sole focus is on protecting and safeguarding the reputation of the business we are putting on a set of blinkers. We can potentially lose sight of what is happening and the environment that we are working in. We will be looking inward at the organisation rather than outward at those who are being impacted by the situation. We are running to our timescale and timetable rather than seeing how communities and individuals are responding. So let’s take those blinkers off.

Start looking at the impact of the work you do. Consider who is receiving your communication, what will it mean to them and how can you make improvements. Remember that although you may be working for an organisation you are still part of society and you have ethical responsibilities from being a communicator. As I said at the event this week I am not having a Miss World moment where I am looking to help children and old people. This is about effective communication that helps people through a period of unrest, uncertainty and challenge.

It doesn’t matter who we are working for or where we are working we can all make a difference by ensuring that our crisis response is focused on what matters – the people involved, affected, and responding to the situation. Reputation, for me, comes from doing the right things and then building the communication around it.

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Getting Chartered

When there is more work than you can manage and the day job seems endless focusing on professional development is the last thing on your mind. It is a sad fact of the way modern life is that we spend a lot of time doing things but often have little time to look at what we need. This week is the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Get Chartered week which is the ideal time to take some time to review where you are and where you want to be.

Nearly six years ago I nervously sat with many others waiting to go through the Chartership assessment day. It was something I had kept secret and so had a few communication colleagues. We all met that morning and rather than making me feel more nervous it was quite reassuring. We were all in the same boat, wanting to demonstrate our professionalism and gain accreditation. After a gruelling day, which is fine as it needs to be something that you work hard to achieve, I was delighted to become Chartered.

What has it meant since then? In some respects not a lot but in many ways a huge amount. My employers at the time were pleased for me but it had no impact on my pay or conditions. I like to think that it did give me a way of showing that communication was alongside other chartered professions. I had pushed myself to attempt the Chartership assessment because I knew at some point I would become self-employed and I believe it gives clients some reassurance.

I had a huge sense of achievement when I was able to put Chart.PR after my name. It felt like recognition for what I had done and what I knew. I came to PR through journalism and have no PR qualifications so this was an assessment of what I could do. In the years that have followed being chartered has ensured I am continually focusing on my own professional development. I believe this helps to keep me at the top of my game.

For any PR and communication professionals considering making the move to become Chartered I would urge them to find out more about what it means and what is involved in the assessment. I am happy to explain more about the assessment day, and what follows to anyone wanting more information. Six years on from that challenging day I am still pleased with my achievement which is why it hangs next to be desk in my office.

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More than a hashtag

There are a lot of blogs, social media posts and comments about environmental action being sent out today. Earth Day has become an opportunity for brands to wave their eco-credentials around. But can it go further?

The sad fact is that Earth Day becomes a lot of discussion and little to no action. How many of the businesses that are putting social media posts out today will be implementing changes and transforming how they operate? How many will be looking at where they invest and what impact that has or checking the way contractors work?

If we think back two years there was a lot of discussion about businesses needing transform and change how they work. The pandemic highlighted the importance of business continuity, staff engagement and resilience among many things. It exposed weaknesses in systems and processes as well as the need for improved policies. As with any crisis there was the opportunity to come out of it stronger if we took action.

Earth Day reminds me about how much we have failed to do. How many chances we had to look at things differently and how many times we could have taken a new path. The conversations have been started but now they need to be turned into tangible actions.

Now is the right time to do more than use the hashtag, say what you think people want to hear and to try and talk up a scant response. Let us take the opportunity we have to reinvent the way we do things and really make a difference.

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Life long learning

In a couple of months time I will be celebrating the sixth anniversary of one of the proudest days in my life – the day I achieved Chartered status. At the time I was working within the police and no-one really understood what it was or recognised that it was a professional qualification. I had expected that and it wasn’t the reason I had pursued it. I wanted to test myself, to see whether I had the right level of knowledge and experience. After many years in policing it was also a qualification that meant something to people outside of law enforcement.

The Value of Chartership report from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) is not surprising. Seventy-two per cent of people involved in the research felt the respect for chartered status was low. A lot more needs to be done to promote standards across the PR and communication industry. But that brings with it additional dilemmas.

At the moment PR is one industry that has no obvious bars to people joining. There is no need to have a University degree or to have achieved a certain qualification. This on paper makes it open to all. However, that is not the case as the diversity figures within the industry have shown over many years. So what can we do to encourage people to continue to develop and to value continued learning?

The report does highlight that almost three-quarters of people felt that upskilling was crucial to their progression. This is important as the PR industry continues to develop. Even in my specific area looking at crisis communication there have been significant developments in the past two years. If I am going to be able to provide the best service to my clients I have to keep up-to-date with these changes and what they mean. It is the same across the PR industry. Everything we do is influenced by developments in society and this means a necessity to keep skills updated.

What matters now is what happens with the details in the report. How can the CIPR, PRCA , CIM and other professional bodies work together to make a difference? How can Chartered status be given a boost so that people see it as an important part of career progression? How can we make sure that those coming into the industry are focused on professional development?

For my part I will continue to champion ensuring personal and professional development continues throughout our working lives, and to encourage more to look to achieve Chartered status.

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The book that needed to be written

Most of my working life has been in the macho world of emergency response not considering what happens next. I awaited the publication of Professor Lucy East hope’s book with huge interest and When the Dust Settles did not disappoint.

I was alerted to the book when I virtually met Lucy as she chaired an Emergency Planning Society conference. The personality that came through on that day seeps through on every page of the book. Her knowledge and insight on many terrible situations is vital reading for anyone involved in emergency response.

The scenes she describes are truly horrific but there is a sensitivity to the way she describes each situation, each victim and each person affected. What matters most in the aftermath is humanity and to focus on people and what they need. This is something I keep stressing in my work and communicators need to see things from the perspective if those caught up in disasters. This is what Lucy does throughout.

I recognised the challenging situation of being the only woman am trying to explain a different view to a room full of men. It is the fine balance of being forceful without being threatening and knowledgable without being too challenging. I also have stopped trying to explain to people why I have spent more than 20 years dealing with crises. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it is mine.

There are so many things to take away from When the Dust Settles. For me the resilience of people and the fragility of life are brought home. The random nature of how things happen and how we need to do more to be ready to not just deal with disasters but to help people through them.

Above everything I was reminded about how important the small things are to help people through the worst days of their lives. Lucy’s account is honest and eye-opening. I also feel I know her a little bit more now and I hope that doesn’t make me too familiar in our Twitter interactions.

I devoured the book over the weekend and know that I will be back reading it again at some point. This is one book that need to be written and deserves to be read.

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Preparedness – an issue for us all

Almost under the radar a report was published that has highlighted the dire state of the UK’s resilience to emergencies and crises. There appears to be little to no coverage in the media and it has attracted some discussion on social media but among emergency planners and specialists in disaster management. But do all communicators need to know what is in this lengthy report?

I would say yes, and not just because it is of interested to me. Everyone has a part to play in building more resilience into our lives and our communities. The report calls it ‘putting people first’ and creating a ‘whole of society’ approach. Effectively the more we talk about the risks and how we prepare for them, the more resilient we can become. The pandemic has shown that we all need to be more ready both personally and professionally for the crises that will arrive.

There were some shocking comments about the current state of resilience in the UK and of preparedness at a national level. Among the sentences that caught my attention were:

“…the pace of development has not been sustained over the past decade. In some important areas, quality has degraded. As a result, UK resilience today has some serious weaknesses. It is not fit for future purpose in the world the UK is moving into.”

And.

“Resilience in the UK has suffered strategic neglect.”

If that is the damning assessment from those who conducted the review, how can we move forward? What can we do to make a difference and start to improve? One of the key recommendations is to publish more information on risks and their consequences so that families, communities and businesses can be better prepared. Also, giving people affected by emergencies a voice in the development of policies and operational practice. These are points that I have been stressing in the work I do over the past two years.

After the Manchester Arena attack in 2017 it was clear to me that those who are at the centre of such terrible events need to be heard. The work of the group Survivors Against Terror and the Peace Foundation have done much in this endeavour over the past five years. I have spoken recently at two events looking at how to communicate around terrorist incidents, and knowing how to approach the communication is important for us all. It doesn’t matter who we work for or where we work, any one of us could be caught up in an incident and need to respond.

The Covid-19 pandemic caught us all napping. Crisis communication plans, business continuity plans and emergency response plans were all found to have gaps, to be out of date or to need significant revision. As individuals, people rushed to the shops in panic as they did not know what to expect or what the impact of lockdowns would be. We have learnt a lot over the past two years and this is the ideal time to keep the conversation going. It is critical to talk to people about how they can be ready for emergencies, for storms that knock out the power, for floods that may sweep through streets, and for cyber attacks that bring down critical networks.

I will be interested to see how the Government respond to this report. How will they approach the extensive recommendations. Will they redesign the approach to risk? Will they create a Centre of Resilience Excellence? Will there be national standards in training and qualifications ensuring competence in working in this area? There are many areas of development that the report highlights and it is a transformation of this emergency response area of work.

For my part I will continue to work with the Emergency Planning Society Communication Professional Working Group to identify good practice, areas for development and to highlight emergency communication and preparedness as an issue for us all.

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