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

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.

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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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When words are not enough

I have struggled with feeling unable to write a blog this week. There is so much pain and suffering whenever the TV is switched on. I can’t adequately find the words to capture the horrific scenes both in Haiti and Afghanistan.

As I watched the news this morning I was again reduced to tears seeing people desperate to protect their families and find a way out of Afghanistan. I will never really understand the true extent of what it feels like to have to flee your home or to be living in constant fear.

Most of us have only experienced short term inconveniences to our lives until the pandemic happened. Covid-19 has been a wake up call to us to remember that life is fragile and we can never know what is around the corner.

There are no comments about crisis communication, disaster management or emergency response that feel worthy of saying at the moment. What matters to me now, as always, are the people caught up in these horrendous situations. Watching a father have to lead his three children back through the Taliban because he doesn’t have the correct paperwork broke my heart. He faces such uncertainty and just wants to protect his family.

My woes are insignificant in comparison. The battle with my failing WiFi, the cold weather, the broken plate, and the achy back are all minor troubles when you watch the news. I have never felt more grateful for what I do have in my life.

Words are just not enough for the people in Haiti and Afghanistan. They need action. I hope that governments around the world will step in and do as much as possible to help. But what can I do to help from my comfortable life? I am still working out what I can do. My contribution will feel so insignificant in the face of the scale of this human suffering. But if we can all do some small things then together they may have a big impact.

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Still remembering the faces

After 20 years in police communication I am always drawn to any relevant news stories and was drawn into the #screensaver hashtag that I noticed this morning.

It relates to Derbyshire Police using images of murder victims as screensavers to remind officers about the importance of getting things right first time in challenging cases. Or that was what I gleaned from the media reporting of the action.

I totally understand the need to look at good practice and to continue improving and developing. However, the approach has been criticised with some police officers saying it was ‘bullying’ and insensitive.

My thoughts on reading this went to those who had been directly involved in the cases. And importantly to the families and friends of those who had lost their lives. How will they view this approach? How will officers who have had to confront terrible scenes respond to seeing the faces appear as they logged onto their computers?

I have worked with some amazing police officers who put themselves in danger, would do everything possible to find an offender and get a case to prosecution. I have sat with officers comforting grieving families and promising to find out who was responsible. I am sure they never forget any of those faces whether of family or their lost loved one.

For my part as a press officer I can still see the faces of those murder victims where I worked with detectives to appeal for information. These cases safe back to 1999 but still remembered.

Reading the #screensaver hashtag is a heartbreaking reminder of the horrors that officers face. Most officers I have worked with wanted to do the best for everyone they came into contact with. They may have struggled sometimes due to the pressures and demands of the job but they didn’t join to do a bad job.

I would like to think that there were other ways of raising awareness of these things that would have also recognised the amazing work that does take place.

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A message to prospective freelancers

It is hard to think that just two years ago I was thinking about starting my business and was full of worry and self doubt. We are now 17 months on from when I made the leap and although at times it has not been easy I have never doubted it was the right move for me.

There appears to be more people wanting to tread the same path I have, out of a paid monthly salary and into the world of being self-employed. I was particularly interested to see the announcement from Hard Numbers and the Hype Collective this week. For anyone who missed it they have established a start up fund for staff who want to launch their own agencies. Staff can bid for up to £100,000 of funding. It is a great initiative recognising that agencies can and do work together and are not always in competition.

Many people I speak to have found themselves wanting to make a change in their lives having found themselves considering things during the pandemic and lockdowns. The past two years have reminded us all how short and uncertain life is and we never know what may be around the corner. So, we need to make changes now and not accept what we don’t want.

I was reading through my spew journal the other day. (Yes, I do have a spew journal where I release all the negativity and bile I have within me. It is a way of getting it out and then feeling able to move on.) I rarely look back is there is some difficult stuff written within it. But on this occasion I found I had written: “I am weary and tired. I can’t focus and I feel I am on a train that I don’t know where it is heading.” Just a day later I had written: “I need to find a way of smiling or being happy but that feels a long way away.” It was tough and I knew I needed to make a change but it was scary to think about leaving what I had known for so long.

In the past 18 months despite the difficult days of the pandemic I am definitely smiling more and I feel in control of my own destiny. It isn’t nirvana. I still have difficult days when I wonder what I am doing, get overcome with imposter syndrome, or worry about having enough work in the future. But it was the best decision I have made in many years. I am surprisingly happy with my own company and have a wonderful network of fellow freelancers and communication professionals that I can call upon if I feel in need of some help.

All the help and advice I was given over recent years has been invaluable and I am grateful to everyone that has taken their time to give me guidance. This freelance and self-employed life isn’t for everyone as we are all different with different priorities and responsibilities. I am not going to try and replicate all the best guidance I have had here but just to give any aspiring freelancers one important message and that is if you want to do it, prepare, consider and then go for it and don’t look back.

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Learning to be resilient

Have you ever had that feeling when you wake up and within a few minutes want to go straight back to bed? There have been a few days recently when I have been ‘out of sorts’ as they would have said some years ago.

Unlike in the past I don’t shy away from it and will say something on social media. Not for sympathy or for comment but just to show that I am human and my life is not all flowers and sunshine.

The mind is a very powerful thing and we all have our own ways of dealing with things and responding to circumstances. As I was putting the finishing touches to my report on resilience it made me think again about my own resilience.

I was putting the text and graphs into the report and gathering expert advice about what you can do. But at the same time I was having my own mental battle to fight off the negative thoughts. I am getting much better at recognising when I am reaching full in my mental bucket. Sadly, I am not yet as good at doing something about it.

The CIPR and PRCA joint approach to tackling mental health issues in the industry is very welcome. Talking about the situation is important but so is doing something about it.

I was quite shocked in the survey, undertaken to help with the resilience report, showing that two thirds of respondents had never had any resilience training. This has to change. Training plans really need to be updated to include this, and personal development plans also need to reflect the importance of resilience. Don’t confuse resilience with being tough the two are not the same. We are talking about training in how to deal with the uncertainties of life. I hope the PR industry will find ways is introducing that training and expanding the conversation.

If you are interested in the resilience report it will be published on Monday 9 August at midday. Check social media for updates or message me for an email copy.

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