Hindsight or learning for the future?

Every significant crisis or major disaster comes with the inevitable and understandable review of what happened, what could be done differently, and how could things be improved. Is it hindsight or is it a way to learn and develop so that future responses are more successful, efficient and effective? The report published today by the Health and Social Care and Science and Technology Committees makes interesting reading for everyone especially those involved in disaster management and emergency planning.

It is saddening to hear the response from the Government has been to rely on talking about hindsight and how the situation of the Covid-19 pandemic was ‘unprecedented’ – a word that has been more than overused in the past 18 months. This is an opportunity to start to look at what action was taken and how we can look at improving for the inevitable future crises including pandemics. But the approach has been to try to defend the position and all the actions that were taken. No crisis response is perfect and there is always something to take, change, review and develop form every situation.

Two elements came out loud and clear to me from my first reading of the report. The first is that planning is critical and needs to be informed by latest developments internationally rather than from what we are used to. There is criticism in the report that despite SARS and swine flu the focus of planning had been on a traditional influenza circulating. There had been exercises both in 2007 and 2016 but the report states

Despite carrying out simulation exercises, we heard that the UK did not adequately learn the lessons of previous pandemics. In particular, the SARS and MERS outbreaks contained lessons that the UK could have learnt at an early stage.

The report goes on to state that there was too little focus on preparedness for future emergencies within the operation of Government. And that risk planning was left to one team – Civil Contingencies Secretariat – rather than reaching into other departments. This is a situation larger businesses can fall into where they have an emergency planner or a business continuity expert so they offload responsibility for being prepared to deal with crises. It is clear in uncertain times that everyone has a role to play in an effective crisis plan and response. The recommendation that there should be comprehensive plans for future risks and emergencies seems like something that should not need to be said. However, for the UK to be ‘a world leader in co-ordinating international resilience planning’ there is a lot more work that needs to be done, particularly in bringing together all those working in this space.

As a crisis communicator I was drawn to the section of the report titled ‘Public health messaging and communication’ which recognises the positive impact of the initial Stay Home message but notes the confusion that followed with the gradual lifting of restrictions and the differences in the four nations. Adding to this was a lack of public trust following from the Dominic Cummings trip to Durham which allowed misinformation to spread. The report states of this situation regarding trust and misinformation:

This highlights the critical importance of a communication strategy which is clear, consistent and perceived as transparent by the public.

The principles of effective crisis communication put clarity, consistency, transparency at the heart of it, alongside empathy and authenticity. The latter two have also been in short supply during the Covid-19 pandemic. This should not be news to anyone as every debrief or review that I can remember has highlighted the importance of effective communication to the crisis response. This is not looking with hindsight this is a matter of good practice and having an effective crisis communication strategy.

There is a lot more that communicators can take out of the report and the discussion of how messaging failed certain communities is worth a blog in itself. Watch this space as that will follow. I hate the phrase ‘learning the lessons’ as it has come to mean nothing. People are sceptical as the words are uttered but nothing ever changes. This report adds to that feeling as it is clear there were opportunities to develop plans, review arrangements and test scenarios that were not taken. Instead of relegating this to ‘hindsight’ now is the time to really grasp the opportunity to make a change.

Have you comments or thoughts about the Coronavirus: lessons learned to date report published today? Let me know what you think.

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Protecting our mental wellbeing

Sadly, I was not surprised to learn that 90 per cent of public relations practitioners who replied to an industry-wide survey had experienced mental health issues in the past 12 months. The impact of the pandemic has been sustained and is still affecting communicators. Dealing with a crisis takes its toll on communicators and this doesn’t end even as you move to recovery. In my work and conversations now I see what the impact of the past 18 months has been. People are exhausted, in need of a break, struggling to switch off, and filling the gaps caused by vacancies. They have taken on a huge piece of work looking at Covid-19 and recovery but nothing else has been scratched from the ‘to-do’ list. It can’t carry on.

The Workplace Mental Wellbeing Audit 2021 published today by the PRCA and the CIPR makes compelling reading. It shows people unwilling to take time off work with many keeping their struggle to themselves and not reaching out for help. On a positive note, there does seem to be some increase in recognition of mental wellbeing and support from employers but much more needs to be done. The impact of the pandemic will take a generation to recover from and there is a long road ahead.

I have been very open about my own mental wellbeing challenges that followed responding to the Manchester Arena attack in 2017. From being a very strong and capable person I started to feel wobbly, like life was going out of control, and at times being very depressed. I was not alone there are many, many people who experienced problems after the events of 22 May 2017. There was support in place but it still felt wrong to open up about how I felt. In my head it was admitting a weakness in a role where strength was so important.

It is vital that more people speak about their own experiences so that anyone who is struggling can see they are not alone, and there is no weakness from seeking help. The four recommendations from the Audit Report are all extremely sensible.

1, Break the guilt and normalise seeking help.

2, Continue to encourage conversations and address the overwhelming workload

3. Promote a preventative approach to mental wellbeing

4. Support employees through hybrid working

Workload is one of the critical factors in the recovery phase of any crisis. People attempt to continue to operate in the fast paced way that is needed during the crisis but energy reserves will be depleted. Communicators will be working on crisis, recovery, usual daily business, picking up on work that was delayed, and at a time when there is a backlog of holidays and time off that is needed. We need to speak up and be honest about what can be done. Prioritising the work is essential.

There is no time to delay in taking action. Another crisis may be around the corner and if resilience is low or has disappeared communicators may not be able to respond. This has to change and preventative measures such as resilience training, coaching and mentoring are required. I highlighted this need in my report on Building Resilience in an Uncertain World. (Get in touch for a copy)

Today’s report needs to be more than another statement of the position and has to be the start of a change in attitudes and perceptions. Mental wellbeing is important to us all and any one of us may find ourselves struggling. Action is needed by the PR and communication industry and employers to ensure no-one suffers in silence.

If anyone needs someone to speak to or is struggling please get in touch with me amanda@amandacolemancomms.co.uk or reach out for help.

Posted in Chartered Institute of Public Relations, communication, Covid-19, crisis communication, prca, resilience | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What next for policing?

I am reflecting on what has been an unbelievable and sad week. My thoughts continue to be with the family, friends and loved ones of Sarah Everard. The details we heard in court this week will be with me for a long time. I have watched with interest the statements that were made after the sentencing of her killer, and the commentary on policing. Today’s newspapers (Sunday 3 October) make difficult reading for policing across the UK.

What is clear and is something I said in the week is that there needs to be change. Policing needs to listen to what people are saying and really understand what it means before they take action. So far I have read only one tweet from a Chief Constable that talks about listening to people. Others have been quick to try and act or move things forward with suggested changes. Police Scotland have said officers who are working alone will proactively offer anyone who is stopped an identity check. The officer’s personal radio will be put on loudspeaker so an officer or control room staff can confirm who they are, that they are on duty and the reason the officer is speaking to them.

All this matters. I spent 20 years in police communication and throughout all that time was committed to try and increase trust and confidence in policing. It is trust that will encourage people to come forward and report crimes and seek help if they have been a victim of crim. It is trust that will mean people provide information about crime in their communities. It is trust that helps being the police and people closer, working together to make communities safer. Throughout my time in the police I worked with some amazing people who just wanted to make a difference and help people.

I have seen officers rush into dangerous situations to protect people. I have seen detectives deal with some of the most horrific crimes and push themselves until they saw the offender charged, in court and then in prison. I have seen family liaison officers spend hours, days and months supporting families going through the worst point in their lives. I know these officers and staff have been horrified by the details of what happened to Sarah. They are the same people who will be looking at what they do, how they operate, and how they can rebuild trust.

But in my two decades there were occasions when I did experience inappropriate behaviour, unacceptable comments and sexism. There was a moment when a newly arrived senior officer thought I was the secretary who was delivering the teas and coffees because I was the only woman in a meeting. There was the time when an officer would walk up behind me and massage my shoulders which was unwanted attention. There were unacceptable comments. These were dealt with by working to ‘fit in’ and brush off these moments.

The issues I encountered are not restricted to policing they will be happening in workplaces up and down the country. What is difference is that police officers have powers that set them apart from other people. This is why there has been such a strong response this week. Moving forward from this will be challenging but cannot be rushed. As with any crisis situation, policing needs to recognise that there is an issue and accept that action needs to be taken. After that there needs to be a detailed plan for what will change, followed by action. This is not about another strategy outside of policing. It is about focusing on what needs to change within policing. There is a long road ahead but the steps along it are going to be critical to rebuild the trust and confidence that has been damaged.

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Remember Sarah

Listening to the heart-breaking victim impact statements from the family of Sarah Everard I, like many people, was moved to tears. The details that were revealed in the court hearing were so horrific and will have affected many people. It has impacted on me. Sarah could have been my sister, my sister-in-law, my friend.

The situation has shaken trust and confidence in the police. No amount of protests that this was a lone individual will stop women feeling uncertain if they are approached by a male police officer. There are no words that will wipe those feelings away. After my time working in the police it makes me sad to think of all those amazing officers who may be seen through that filter. There is no one thing that will rebuild confidence in the police. There is a long road ahead.

What matters now is that there is a recognition that things need to be improved on many fronts. There needs to be a change in the culture so that where there are concerns about the behaviour of police officers colleagues feel able to speak out. It needs a change in the way the police deal with internal investigations and complaints. But more than this there needs to be more done to ensure women feel safe and to amplify women’s voices within policing.

I hope that policing doesn’t try to move forward too quickly and takes the time to reflect. This is not a time to become defensive, and should be a time to be open and willing to listen, learn and change. This moment needs to be a turning point. Strategies and plans to tackle violence against women and girls are all fine but what needs to happen now is action.

The media will ask questions about policing, about trust, about violence against women, about safety on the streets. All that is to be expected. But what we need to remember is Sarah Everard described by the Judge as a ‘talented and much loved young woman’ and by her mother as ‘caring’, ‘funny’, ‘clever’ and ‘a wonderful daughter’.

My thoughts are with her family who showed such strength in reading their victim impact statements yesterday in court and in front of their daughter’s killer. I hope we all remember Sarah.

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Is your communication just wallpaper?

How do we know if the carefully crafted communication that we have developed is really reaching its intended audience? The truth is we don’t often know because we don’t check. Evaluation is still one of the most critical elements of communication and something that can be overlooked when people are busy. What is clear though is that when we are busy and we rush to put communication in place, or when we do what we think has worked we can actually be creating wallpaper.

The use of well worn phrases can become as familiar as wallpaper and quickly become ignored by people. It doesn’t matter what industry you are working in this can happen. I have seen it a lot within crisis communication when people talk about ‘learning the lessons’ or the expected ‘it is too early to speculate’. These phrases may have worked at some point in the past but keep using them and they start to mean nothing and worse can become a problem for people who have been caught up in the crisis. The situation may prompt a similar sentiment but communicators need to find other ways of saying it.

I would go as far as saying that in some industries certain phrases should be banned from media statements. In policing I personally dislike the use of the phrase ‘isolated incident’ which adds little to the information that is being shared. The same is true of saying ‘people can be reassured’ as it feels there is an arrogance around telling people what they should feel. These are both phrases that I have used in the past and I am as guilty as others in trusting to what has been done before. But we need to take another look at the words that we use.

When I started my working life as a journalist I was taught that every word had to earn its place in a story. There should be no room for superfluous or inconsequential words. It is essential to get the key information in as few words as possible. Each story needs to be looked at on its own individual merits and it was important to be creative. We need to make sure that the same approach is taken to communication all the time. When things become too familiar we cease to realise that they are there. They are just wallpaper that we live with and don’t see.

Take a look at what words you are putting together. Do they really tell the story of what has happened in an original way? Are there words or phrases used that don’t add anything? Could you be more interesting and eye-catching? Step back and review what you are doing.

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When disaster strikes what matters most?

Faced with a crisis there is one thing that no responder, leader, or organisation should forget and that is the people who are affected by what has happened. I have talked about this for four years and passionately believe there needs to be a change in the way crisis response and particularly crisis communication is approached. It is what spurred me to write my book and is what I will talk about at the Emergency Planning Society conference next week.

I was pleased this week to see the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) formally signed up to the The Charter for Families Bereaved through Public Tragedy’. This is something that has been talked about a lot over recent years. The Charter needs to be understood by PR and communication professionals working in both public and private sector. While the focus is on those institutions that are likely to be leading the response to a disaster the same elements should be at the heart of the way all organisations respond.

To start with is the following point in the event of a public tragedy that the police will look at “deployment of resources to rescue victims, to support the bereaved and to protect the vulnerable”. It is the point about support to those affected, the bereaved and others that should be at the centre of all crisis and emergency responses. It also points out that “We do not knowingly mislead the public or the media.” I would hope that for communicators this should not need to be pointed out. Members of the CIPR and the PRCA are aware of the ethical considerations and the responsibility that communicators have especially at times of extreme pressure.

But it is the second point that is made that matters to me which is “Place the public interest above our own reputations”. If only this was the approach taken by all businesses and organisations then they would be able to make better decisions and be in the position where the response is focused on the right aspects. When I train teams I have a long list of organisations where this wasn’t the case and the crisis communication could not achieve what was needed. Reputation management as a sole focus of any crisis response is likely to lead to ineffective and failing communication. (You can read more about the NPCC comments on the charter here https://www.npcc.police.uk/Charter%20for%20Families%20Bereaved%20through%20Public%20Tragedy/Charter%20for%20Families%20Bereaved%20through%20Public%20Tragedy%20NPCC.pdf)

The next stage is for more organisations to sign up to this approach to ensure that what matters when dealing with disasters, emergencies and crises is that people are at the heart of the response. Those who are affected should be front and centre when taking action and critically should be at the heart of the communication. The announcement this week has had limited coverage and I only spotted it through Twitter. I hope in the coming weeks this is something that the CIPR and PRCA take up to discuss with members. I will continue to talk about, share and try and help organisations to ensure their plans, processes and policies are focused on the right things – the people.

Posted in Chartered Institute of Public Relations, CIPR, communication, crisis communication, emergency services, police, PR, prca | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

When time stopped

I had just returned from a brief lunch break and the large portable television at the other side of the office suddenly attracted my attention. It was always on just in case there was an important news update but there was no rolling news that you could get on this old machine. I was doing some work that I can’t remember and suddenly became inconsequential as the breaking news told of a plane hitting the World Trade Centre.

The day was September 11, 2001 and I was just a few weeks into a new job with Greater Manchester Police after moving into police communication a couple of years earlier. One of the main reasons I moved to Manchester was the chance to be involved with the Commonwealth Games in a year’s time. That afternoon, the shock, the fear, the distress is still as clear to me now 20 years later as it was in the weeks that followed.

There are some events and crises that are so huge they change life forever. This was one of those moments in time. Terrorism was now a feature of my thoughts. It was this moment that spurred me on to learn more and complete a Certificate in Terrorism Studies and to volunteer to work closely on counter terrorism work. Communication then as now always so critical to this issue.

I have been listening to hugely emotional personal stories of those who had been in and around the World Trade Centre that day 20 years ago. Every word brings tears to my eyes and I can feel the pain of those interviewees. Some of the comments feel very close to home and what I experienced after 22 May 2017. I heard one interview from a reporter who said in the days that followed people hugged, held hands and were genuinely supportive when they met again. In the days after the Arena a good police officer friend used to start all out catch ups with a hug, which I needed more than ever.

Today, I heard a woman who had been helped to escape talk about how she felt she could have done more. This was something that troubled me for years afterwards, surely I could have done more to help people. Her recollections of that day were as clear to her now two decades later. There are times I remember receiving the first call about the Arena, working through the night, putting out as much information as possible.

All these issues are covered in detail in Kjell Braatas’ book Managing the Human Dimension of Disasters which is a book that anyone involved in managing emergencies, disasters and crises should read. Crises are emotional, very emotional and this human element is the critical to the response. Now, I spend time talking about how people are the most important focus of any crisis communication, response and incident management. I think back to the events 20 years ago as the starting point for a change in my thinking that was galvanised just over four years ago.

On Saturday, I will take a moment to stop, remember and think about what more can be done to help anyone who is caught up in the crises, disasters and emergencies that lie ahead.

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Jumping to a second chance

While the world was whizzing by this weekend was about some quality time at home. I am lucky that as well as being my office my home has always felt like a haven away from the hustle and bustle. My main focus is making a lovely peaceful space for me, my partner and my amazing house rabbit.

I know many people wouldn’t understand the joy that a house rabbit can bring but he is our family. He has been in our family for almost four years after joining us as a four year old rescue rabbit. Rejected from two homes, he was given another chance with us and over time he began to trust us. Around Easter he was not well but despite all the odds he recovered.

In June the situation changed and he started to become very sick. So sick that we had to race him to a specialist exotic animal vet. The outlook was not good but he refused to give up and so did we. Last night he cheekily jumped up to sit next to me on the sofa which was a major step forward. It is clear evidence that there is always a second or even third chance.

Change is often seen as a bad thing bringing disruption and making people unsettled. But without change we will not move forward. And however things are now does not mean they have to stay that way. You can make a change, do something different and take another chance. If we continue to do the same things in the same way at the same time we are likely going to get the same result.

We should never give up on making a change and definitely never give up hope. There are many times in recent years that I have struggled and felt hope slipping through my fingers when in reality it was always there. Even if I didn’t see it, it was still there.

Everyone should have a second chance. If you have had a disagreement with someone then make a move to reconciliation. If you have a desire to do something different then go for it. If you are contemplating a move then take a deep breath and go for it. We all deserve that second chance and perhaps we will be given a new lease of life like my house bunny Digger.

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Be prepared, be crisis ready

Anyone who was in the brownies, guides or similar organisation will remember the motto ‘be prepared’. As a child it didn’t really mean a lot. Life just happened and with very few life experiences there was no concept of what might happen.

Now the motto is a critical part of what I do every day. I spend a lot of time helping businesses be ready to communicate about any issues that may arise. Being prepared means being crisis ready.

I have watched a lot happening around the world in the past few weeks. Horrific and upsetting scene from Afghanistan, emerging disaster in America and the daily Covid-19 death toll. I make no comment about the responses to these situations other than they planning and preparation are, and would have been, key to a more successful conclusion.

Planning means thinking carefully about what is ahead, looking at what the knock on effects may be, and getting ready to respond. It is important to remember this is not just about responding to the incident but to the consequences it brings and to the impact the response may have. Looking at all that takes careful consideration.

We all know the importance of planning. You wouldn’t just start to build an extension on your house and hope that it was right. You wouldn’t head off to climb a mountain with no equipment. You wouldn’t get a flight on holiday without thinking what you need for the trip. So why do we just focus on what is immediately in front of us at work?

Tomorrow is the start of national preparedness month which was established in America to encourage people to be prepared for risks that they may face. The first week is focused on making a plan. It may be in case of flooding, evacuation, pandemic lockdown, fire or other problem but the plans will save you vital time as the situation emerges.

Having a plan is the foundation of your crisis readiness and means you will have thought things through ahead of time. Nobody wants to think about problems happening but life is uncertain and changeable we just need to accept that and prepare our response.

I hope that the events of 2020 and 2021 will have reminded governments around the world that preparation is still essential to a successful response.

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Getting to the root of the issue

The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over. I am sure lots of people realise that when they see the infection rates and death toll each day. But the impact of it can be seen in our towns and villages. The latest casualty was the little greengrocer in my village.

During the tough first lockdown they were a vital resource for the local community. They kept going throughout and seemed busier than ever. That was last year and as things have reopened, people have been vaccinated and restrictions eased things have changed. People have returned to supermarkets but the villages are still empty.

With every shop that shuts the high street moves a step closer to disappearing. I have no need for the pubs, nail bars and takeaways that are all that remains on my local shopping street. As a result it means I never visit and for the few remaining shops that becomes the death knell.

I have written many times, and said almost as frequently, that the pandemic will fundamentally change our lives forever. Not just because of the experience that we have all been through but because of its legacy. There are ways of living that will change and will not be the same. It can feel scary.

The reality is that we have to look to build forwards, to take the learning we have and to develop, and accept it will be different. If we can adapt to the circumstances and take the opportunities that lie ahead we can deal positively with life.

Within the rush to leave the pandemic behind we have forgotten to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in. Now is the time to take stock and answer that question in our communities.

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