On the breeze

Walking towards home I could feel the warmth of the sun cooled by the gentle breeze. I had just put my old horse to bed after watching him enjoy some time relaxing in the paddock. Waiting for me at home was my amazing house bunny who had fought through serious illness to still be here.

My diary for the coming months is filling up with work and I have just signed off the first year accounts for my business. Today my Mum and Dad celebrate their emerald wedding anniversary which is 55 years of marriage. As I walk through my beautiful little garden and into the house my partner of 34 years is tidying up.

Why do I tell you all this? A few years ago I was asked what I wanted from life and I said contentment. I wanted to stop and smell the flowers, to get away from feeling as though I was always chasing something, and to enjoy what I have. It has been a challenging few years but as I walked home I knew I had made it.

The past 15 months living with a pandemic has made it many people reassess their lives and what is important . It is a journey I have been on for a few years now.

The recent publication of the first report from the Manchester Arena inquiry will have had a significant affect on so many people whose no lives were changed that night. I was watching some of the coverage late last night and found myself getting very emotional. I can only hope that from the final three reports there is a move to change and to make things better for the future.

We don’t often step back and see the full extent of what we have around us. We don’t often take stock of where we are and where we have come from. It can lead to a feel of dissatisfaction, frustration or restlessness. What we need is to be grateful for what we do have both big and small.

I know I have reached a state of contentment. It doesn’t mean I am not striving to develop the business or that I am not going to get frustrated. But I can see the beauty and joy that is in front of me, and that is the most precious thing.

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Banish the talk of reputation

The report into the death of Daniel Morgan published today (Tuesday 15 June 2021) is about more than the Metropolitan Police and what they did or didn’t do in relation to the investigation. It is about how organisations and businesses must banish the focus on reputation management when they are responding to crises, issues and incidents.

It was this line in the report that caught my attention:

“The Metropolitan police’s culture of obfuscation and a lack of candour is unhealthy in any public service. Concealing or denying failings, for the sake of the organisation’s public image, is dishonesty on the part of the organisation for reputational benefit. In the panel’s view, this constitutes a form of institutional corruption.”

For me it is unhealthy in all businesses and organisations to operate in a way that means decisions are made purely based on how to minimise any impact on reputation. I spend a lot of time training people in crisis communication and response and always include a discussion about reputation. PR professionals are brought up with the definitions of the work about how it is managing reputation and thankfully in recent years we have added a focus on ethical operation to this.

But PR should never be about reputation alone. Doing this will lead to bad or perverse decision making where what is right is sacrificed to what is reputationally acceptable. The role of communication should be to manage the consequences of the actions that are taken. Leaders need to use the information they have to make the right decision, or at least the best decision, then worry about the impact on reputation later.

We need to use the information in the report to start a conversation about the way communication and PR operates, and how reputation should be considered. More than this leaders in all organisations and businesses should consider the details in the report and look at how they operate, how they make decisions and how they may need to change. Yes, these things are more critical when we are talking about public bodies and institutions but it is much broader.

Reputation is about more than being seen to do the right thing, it is about doing the right thing and then shining a light on it. I will continue to encourage communicators to consider what role reputation should play when they are planning their crisis communication response. For me it is clear, I wrote in my book on leadership in a crisis:

” Leaders need to understand and recognise the importance of communication in a crisis but also in ensuring that the response is ethical and not rooted solely in protecting the reputation of the business or them as a leader.”

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What really is freedom?

I decided to start this Monday with a philosophical question; what is freedom? I think we will all have slightly different views about some of the details that we believe show that we are free. It may be because we have the ability to make certain choices in our lives, it may be that we can think and say certain things, or perhaps it is something else. What you think it is will really matter today?

Why? Well, today has been labelled as ‘freedom day’ in the UK as it had been the date when the decision was expected to be made that all Covid-19 restrictions would be removed. I have some major issues with calling it ‘freedom day’. To start with there are many, many people around the world who would view what we currently have as freedom. There is an sentiment from that phrase which makes it appear as if we have all be locked up which is not the case. Even when the toughest of the restrictions were in place people were allowed out for a range of activities.

The other issue I have is that putting all the emphasis on one date, even when the narrative was that decisions would be made based on data, has given people false hope and create an unrealistic expectation. As a communicator, I would say that words matter but in relation to keeping the trust and confidence in the Covid-19 crisis response they are critical. It you say 21 June then that is what everyone will remember, if you say all existing restrictions may be lifted they will hear restrictions being lifted. It is like the ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ situation. Of course, the first thing you think about is the pink elephant. Crisis messaging needs to be very carefully considered, reviewed, discussed and then revised or used.

Many may remember the statements about vaccination being the way out of this crisis putting it as the golden bullet makes it difficult to then say that despite being jabbed you still need to continue to social distance etc. There is no simple way out of dealing with a pandemic and a level of honest about behaviour not just vaccination would be beneficial.

Once again the information about the statements that are going to be made later by the UK Prime Minister have been leaked or provided to the media. This makes the detailed press conference later almost redundant and I am sure that this is my design and not by accident. I will say no more about this.

So, 15 months on from the first lockdown and around 18 months since Covid-19 started to be a focus of our thinking, where are most people and what is in their minds? There will be a whole range of views, thoughts, and emotions which depend on how the past year or so have been and what they have brought. That fact alone makes the communication that comes next even more challenging.

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Here we go again

So in the words of the soft rock band Whitesnake ‘here we go again’. Yesterday, Greater Manchester and Lancashire were put into restrictions, or possibly the areas were just given guidance. The increased spread of the Delta variant has sparked concern and with everyone having one eye on the 21 June ‘freedom day’ the time came to put the spotlight on the area where I live.

People have talked of the Corona rollercoaster, or Coronacoaster, and it has certainly felt like that for people in Greater Manchester. After the struggle last year over the terms of a local lockdown there now is a level of defiance building around the suggested guidance put in place yesterday. You can see this defiance in the comments on local media web stories, and in the conversations that are taking place in the streets.

I was on my way home last night when I spoke to a neighbour out doing some gardening in the cool of the evening. The guidance was always going to be something that came under scrutiny and I find these conversations essential to seeing the impact of communication. Phrases like ‘we have had enough’, ‘what are we supposed to do now’ and ‘we are just going to have to live with this aren’t we’ were all spoken. During the past 15 months it feels there have been only a few weeks when restrictions were not in place in the area.

What the neighbours I have spoken to wanted was more clarity and information from their local leaders, local authorities and public services in the area. There is concern or at the worst mistrust of announcements that are played out in Parliament, which for many is a world away from their daily lives.

Surge testing is coming, although nobody knows when or where. The army are being drafted in and may be spotted on the streets where I live. People are being told to meet outside, not too bad with the sunny weather but dark clouds are literally and metaphorically gathering, and to avoid travelling into and out of the area. This latter point is not as easy to achieve as it sounds with many people coming into the area or going out of the area for work. There are no real borders between Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Cheshire and Merseyside.

What is important in all this is that people have a clarity about what the situation is and what they are expected to do about it. But with continued Government announcements and local messaging struggling to catch up patience is wearing thin. The next couple of weeks look set to be challenging.

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Game, set and match

There is an unanswered question that exists: what do we want from or expect of our media? It has been much debated and discussed but with no universal agreement. The situation with Naomi Osaka who has withdrawn from the French Open raises many issues. In a statement she talks about suffering with depression and anxiety, and that she decided to avoid the press conferences for self-care reasons. So should she have to face the media?

PR and communication professionals work with this problem on a daily basis. Does the Chief Executive need to do an interview? What are the positives of the opportunity? Could things go wrong? In most situations there are options. You can put the right person up to do the interview, or you can find alternatives to a media interview even if that is providing a written statement. Things become more challenging when you are dealing with a crisis. In those situations people expect to see and hear from the people in charge of the response.

There is no doubt that facing the media when you are stressed, anxious or depressed is a daunting thing. Even when you are feeling on top of things doing media interviews is pressured. For many years I saw the good and bad from media approaching victims and their families for interviews. Where necessary there was an effort to protect them from this additional pressure. So perhaps sportspeople need to be afforded the same support when they are struggling?

What is essential for celebrities, sportspeople and those in charge of organisations and businesses is good old-fashioned media training. If you introduce young sportspeople to training in how to deal with the media they can start to develop the required skills. Two decades ago media training was a staple for all organisations. Back in the late 1990s every senior manager, and many junior ones, was expected to undertake media training. They would probably have undertaken a number of media training sessions before they were ever faced with the pressure of running a business. In the past 10 years this has disappeared which I believe is partly due to financial pressures and partly to an over-emphasis on the role of social media.

I would ask all PR teams to consider how they would manage arranging media interviews during a crisis. Are there people you can call on in the midst of an emergency? Will they be able to deal with the pressure and face the media’s quesstions? If you are working with key individuals are they ready to appear in front of the cameras? Organisations that expect people to stand and answer media questions need to exercise a duty of care to them by providing adequate training.

I wish Naomi Osaka well and hope that she finds a positive way through the challenges that she is facing. The situation though says less about her and more about the way the media operate and how communicators prepare and support people who have to stand in front of the cameras.

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The seeds of confusion

I have waited for 24 hours to see what happened with the Covid-19 confusion around the local hotspot areas. As we wake this morning the guidance has been changed to minimising travel into and out of the eight areas. Grant Shapps had to face the questions on Radio 4 this morning and struggled to find the words to apologise for the situation even when confronted with people who had changed arrangements because of the guidance. I am not going to go through the reasons why this confusion was unhelpful, what matters to me now is what it means for the future.

In the radio interview they quoted an MP who said the guidance had left people struggling to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. If this is the case then it is important to start thinking about creating a tapestry of messages that will build to give people the complete picture. Communication continues to demonstrate how it is a critical part of any crisis response.

It may have been an oversight or a breakdown in communication but the confusion of the past 24 hours has the potential to damage confidence. People have been through a year of listening to messages, being told what to do about all aspects of their lives, and of attempting to do the right thing. Keeping people engaged with the messages when a crisis runs for a long period is always going to be a challenge. A lack of clarity is one way that you can switch people off. If they can’t understand it then why would they listen to it.

There is also the lack of transparency that threatens the honesty of the messaging. Putting the update on a website and not sharing it clearly with people is a short step to playing into the conspiracy theories. A crisis needs a regular flow of messaging, clear, open, honest and accessible to those who need it. This is about more than a Downing Street briefing and is about daily updates shared with key agencies.

Here it is worth mentioning the relationship between central government and local agencies. People are more likely to trust and listen to the messages that get shared locally. These are the agencies that provide key local services, that regularly share messages and that make information relevant to that area. An effective communication response to a crisis needs to prioritise stakeholder engagement and work with key partners. Throughout the past year there have been these occasions where a breakdown between central and local agencies has caused confusion and has sown seeds of mistrust.

Communicating with people cannot be an afterthought. It needs to be sat in the operations room providing strategic advice. It needs to be a strand of the response. It needs to be given resources, support and the recognition for what it can achieve. We have to take the learning and build something more efficient, effective and workable for the future.

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How far will you go?

From primary school I had wanted to pursue only one career and that was to be a journalist. It was the way I started my working life and something I will never regret. But the report about the behaviour of the BBC in relation to the interview with Princess Diana will cast a shadow over the profession today.

Every occupation has both good and bad in it, that is not the issue for me. The issue is that nothing was done about concerns that were raised at the time, and that it has taken more than 25 years to reach a conclusion.

The phone hacking scandal left some media saying that is the tabloids and not us. But it is clear now that more needs to be done to uphold ethical standards within journalism and that everyone needs to be part of the solution. If the BBC can be found to have behaved in this way then why couldn’t it happen anywhere else?

As a young reporter I remember going for an interview for a role and being asked ‘how far would to go to get a story?’ and then being given a set of scenarios. Needless to say I didn’t get the job. In my years in PR I have seen the good and bad in journalism. At its best it has campaigned for the underdog and got results, it has exposed corruption and started conversations about key changes needed in society. But at its worst I have seen the families of victims of crime hounded and people left in turmoil.

Today is not a day to point the finger at the BBC. They will have to work out how best to respond to the situation and start to rebuild trust and confidence. But for those working in the media and PR it is a day to reflect on what more can be done to ensure that standards are being upheld.

There is no surprise that polls show trust in journalists is lower than that given to politicians. Every set of statistics shows the same thing. In the year after Covid-19 emerged journalism has been essential not just to hold those in power to account but to highlight the situation as it developed. This is the moment when journalism can start to work to redefine the image that it has with the public. At the same time there is still much work to do to change perceptions about the work of public relations. What matters most from this point is that we all take responsibility to demonstrate the highest professional standards and work to change perceptions.

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Think the unthinkable

Dealing with a pandemic was always going to be one of the biggest tests any organisation or any individuals will have to face. Learning from the experiences we have been through is vital to ensure that we build resilience and increase readiness for future crises. The National Audit Office’s report published today (Initial learning from the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic) was an interesting look at what more can be done in the future. But it is not just a report for crisis managers and government planners there is important findings for PR and communication professionals.

The report provides a reminder about what is important in ensuring crisis readiness and in building an effective response. It doesn’t cover recovery but as we are not there yet that will need to be a report in the future.

It is important to remember that this sort of review is not about blame it is about learning. We have to learn as we go through the crisis so we avoid making the same mistakes again and we can improve the response. Debriefing and reviewing should be a key part is our crisis management.

The report highlights the importance of planning for events. It was something I learnt from an early stage in my police communication career. I was struck by the amount of white folders in the emergency planners room which was filled with plans for literally every eventuality. I would not have been surprised if it included zombie apocalypse plan. Organisations and governments need to think the unthinkable and get prepared.

The preparations need to include roles and responsibilities that are clear. The report highlights how effective governance are important for a rapid response. You have to know what you and your team are going to do so that you can a lot into that role when the worst happens. Communication teams need to have those clear roles and responsibilities defined and test them ready for the moment a crisis happens.

A third key point that the report highlights is the role of effective communication. It can strengthen public trust and the report also says it can help to achieve policy objectives for governments. It is the way you can help people make sense of what has happened but also what is being done to respond and what it means for people.

We have learnt a lot during the past 14 months and while there may be crisis fatigue there is no time to take your eye off the ball. It is time to look at the learning, identify improvements and be ready fo whatever happens next. This is time to expect the unexpected and prepare for the uncertainties of the future.

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In, out or stay at home?

From today national messages about restrictions in the U.K. have been replaced by personal responsibility as the watch word. The roadmap towards regaining ‘normal’ life is not as simple as it may have first appeared a few months ago. A short drive from home is Bolton, the town that now seems to be at the centre of the concerns about the Indian variant of Covid-19. So the media coverage focusing on heading back to all those things we have missed feels at odds with my personal situation.

I have watched and listened with growing frustration to the messaging of recent weeks. It is easy to criticise I know but dealing in definitives that you have no control over is just setting things up for failure. We have had the ‘it will be over by Christmas’, and ‘we will be back to normal by Easter’, and now the ‘this will be the last lockdown’. How can you say that when the future is uncertain?

It is looking increasingly like some form of local restrictions will need to be in place to deal with the increase in places like Bolton. (It is also important to remember these spikes can be seen in many places around the UK not just Bolton.) This may be unpallatable but if hospitals start to be overwhelmed there are few other options available.

Today is not a day to throw caution to the wind, hug relatives, dash for a pint at the bar, or rush back to the cinema. Covid-19 did not suddenly realise that the 17 May meant it was no longer spreading. We know that problems existed yesterday and they are still in place today. The issue of personal responsibility for me is just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should do it.

There is a huge challenge to move from directive messaging that we have had to a relaxation to taking personal responsibility without some guidance. The guidance hasn’t been available and more than that the current situation risks creating more confusion about what people should do. People need to understand how to assess and manage their own risks. This is something I speak about a lot to communicators; start by knowing your risks, then assess, and then develop mitigation or accept the risk exists. We all need to use a similar process when determining what we are going to do and how we can manage our lives. It is a discussion that doesn’t seem to be had anywhere at the moment but one that is well overdue.

I will be watching the developments this week with interest to see how people make sense of what their personal responsibility should be.

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Could or will?

People hate uncertainty. Business markets hate uncertainty. But the one thing we have had a lot of in recent months is uncertainty. This is a big issue for communicators who face having to make difficult decisions about what to say. Do you say ‘we could do x’ or be more definite and say ‘we will be doing x’?

I listened a week or so ago to Dr Vincent Covello talk about the issue of providing a definite response in a works where uncertainty reigns. He talked about the importance of not saying something that may not happen. He said if you miss a target even by just 1 percent people will view it as a miss and it can start to undermine confidence.

Listening to the radio news this morning that talk came to the forefront of my mind. In a report about the Indian variant of Covid that is seeing an increase in parts of the U.K. the report stated that people could be called for a second jab early to try and halt transmission. Could was the word that rung out for me. Could or will?

People may well be asking why there is no clear plan to deal with the emergent of variants. We are starting to accept that we will be living with the virus for some time to come and dealing with variants will be an ongoing issue.

At the moment we risk people only hearing that they can hug relatives, will soon be meeting people indoors and that there will be a return to ‘normal’ life in the summer. A conversation around managing risks, being alert to changes required due to variants and to remember personal hygiene measures would be more beneficial.

Words really so matter. During a crisis choosing the right words and building trust and confidence is critical. It is time for communicators to take the research and use it to develop more effective communication to take us through turbulent times.

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