Through the seasons

We are always saying that communication is a 24/7 business with social media round-the-clock and rolling news channels. There is lots of discussion about how we can manage this demand with the resources we have and it is no easy thing. There is also the ongoing concern about the ability we have to respond to a crisis when it erupts. Reputations are lost and gained in an instant and brands can fall if they are not swift enough to respond to events.

It surprises me against this backdrop how many businesses, organisations and brands seem to shut down throughout the festive period. The communication support appears to go into a similar hibernation with possibly a skeleton on-call service provided. Don’t get me wrong I am not being a Grinch about this as everyone needs time off to relax, unwind and recharge. The concern I have is about communication and PR being seen as a vital strategic function which we say we want but then may not be demonstrating in our actions.

The choice may be taken out of our hands if there is some form of enforced shut down. But I would suggest we need to argue the importance of communication and ensure that there is some form of support available over the festive period especially when they are normal working days.

For almost 20 years I have been in an emergency service communication department and I know that has its own unique elements. But even before this I was still working throughout the Christmas and New Year period both as a journalist and in my other PR roles. It is something I have come to accept. I can’t say I relish it but I see it as vital to the work we do.

This is actually quite a busy time of the year considering the limited media operation and people slowing down their use of social media. There are often travel issues, weather challenges, sales dilemmas and then there are the New Year’s honours. For public sector communicators there is no let up because their work is about services for people and they don’t stop just because it is Christmas.

I don’t expect everyone has to be in the office but surely we have to have someone available and ready to respond. It means we can deal swiftly with any challenges and also take those opportunities that arise. Businesses and organisations need to recognise the requirement to financially support this to happen, and to see the benefits it brings. It is one part of the jigsaw of getting a seat at the top table by showing the strategic significance of the work we do throughout the year.

I would love to hear people’s views on this and whether my views are clouded by two decades working in the emergency services. Happy New Year everyone.

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Being human

I have many labels that attach to me. I am a daughter, sister and partner. I am a mum to my fur babies. I am a vegan. I am a horse rider and trainee dressage judge. I am a member of police staff and I am a communicator.

All of these labels are right but they are not me. I am so much more than these tags and roles I have. We all are.

I made the trip to London today for a discussion about what 2019 may hold for communicators which had been organised by the PRCA. To get there I had to walk past Parliament and all the pro and anti Brexit protestors and we know that is having a significant impact at the moment. But there is much more for us to wrestle with in the next 12 months.

The stand out for me today was the thoughts that PRCA Chairman Jim Donaldson shared. There were some important words that have strong meaning for me. Confidence that the industry needs to have in what we do and what we can provide for businesses.

Humanity and authenticity were also themes for the morning with a recognition that we need to be real. It means the end of ego run PR businesses and a recognition that staff are people. We can’t label people and think that we have sorted things out. It is crucial that we see the people and not groupings.

The words I took away were that we need to “behave and think like humans”, not PRs or any other tags. I will be taking this with me as we go further into 2019.

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Right to the top

There is a big discussion that is often had about when and how to use the person at the top of the organisation to do media interviews. Managing the demands on the most senior person in the business is one of the most important things for a head of communication.

It doesn’t have an easy answer or formula for what to do and when to do it you have to look at the whole circumstances and situation. We use our professional knowledge and expertise to provide the best advice.

When we are facing a crisis who communicates and at what point becomes critical. I was interested to read the Media First blog about when to use your CEO. It argued that often it presented the wrong impression and gave no room for further development of the crisis deepens.

I have had interesting discussions about this following the terror attack in 2017 and events on New Year’s Eve. Some would question the immediate response to have the most senior person on camera. But it provided instant reassurance of how seriously things are being taken. It shows people that the situation is under control. It sends a strong message to people and to the staff and employees of the organisation.

One of the most important parts of the role of the CEO or other leader is to face the media when a crisis hits. They are most able to provide a situational update and to tackle the concerns people have and the questions that need to be answered. I know in many cases the CEO will demand to do the media seeing it as their responsibility.

In a crisis communicators really have an opportunity to show their worth. They can have a calm head and help steer the organisation through the turbulent waters. For me we have to look at the whole landscape and circumstances before making any decision but using the CEO can be the right thing to do.

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My PR

I wasn’t going to write about the Radio 4 Media Show debate on PR but after mulling over the discussion I feel I must. I will start with a confession that I started my working life as a journalist but after more than 20 years in PR I can confirm the skills and roles are very different.

There are some similar skills such as being able to write, being able to analyse date and events, and being able to talk to all kinds of people. The differences are too many to write.

I struggled to recognise my experiences of PR within the discussion on the programme. With an estimated 70,000 people working in the industry I am sure few will feel the images presented were close to their lives. As a grassroots PR person working in the public sector my world is filled with considering local people , finding ways to have meaningful conversations with them, and redesigning processes, policies and systems to provide a better service for them.

Media relations is just one part of the wide range of aspects to my work. We work closely with journalists but I would hope it is a mutually respectful position. We both of our roles to perform but we can do it without antagonism and conflict.

The debate had just one mention of crisis communication and that was only to regale the story of Jerry Hall. This is not my crisis communication experience. In my world we work with victims to help them have a voice, we work with investigators to help find evidence, we work with partner agencies to help with recovery, and we work with the media to help save lives.

PR for me isn’t a ‘dark art’. It isn’t about storytelling. It is about helping people. It is about finding criminals. It is about improving services to communities. It is about helping to connect the organisation to the local people it serves. It is about doing all this with efficiency based on insight and with clear evaluation.

A year ago I offered to show a national newspaper journalist what my PR actually was. Twelve months on I make the same offer to those on the Radio 4 Media Show.

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365 days later

A year ago I wrote an article for PR Week looking at the predictions for 2018 and it is interesting to reflect now and assess what happened. When I wrote it I was still trying to come to terms with what had been a traumatic 2017 that had made me question many things.

There were three key challenges for the public sector communicators that I identified. They were:

  1. To manage the impact of resourcing challenges on resilience and wellbeing
  2. To move from internal communication to employee engagement
  3. To demonstrate the value of communication to frontline operations

The trio continue to be issues for communicators although we have moved forward in some ways.

First things first, we have made some steps forward in recognising the importance of wellbeing in the workplace. We have started to openly discuss the issues of mental health and the impact our work can have on us. But there is so much more to do. Many young in service PR people try to be invincible and don’t want to show anything that could be perceived as a weakness.

I have spoken quite openly and blogged many times about my own challenges around resilience and wellbeing. There are some times that my mind still works against me like last night when I replayed the whole week’s events in my dream. What is important now is that we continue the conversation and give people the training and support they need.

Secondly, was the need to move from internal communication to employee engagement in the future. This was identified as an opportunity for communicators to move into a more strategic position. There have been some steps forward but much more is required. The past 12 months have seen some public sector communicators being pushed to be tactical at the expense of the strategic because it is easier to achieve with limited resources. We continue to talk about being around the top table but often don’t take the opportunities to develop the business and help us reach that spot.

Finally, I said the focus had to be on showing the impact comms can have on the frontline of the business. This is the most important thing and if we can’t do it then we can’t justify our position as a key function. I still aim to do this every day and to banish the vanity projects that can drain the communication function of resources. There have been some achievements including the initiative that quantified the cost saving that communication can have when operated effectively (

https://www.prweek.com/article/1496881/comms-cheaper-policing-when-deterring-crime ).

I ended the article saying

“despite all the challenges I feel positive about the role of comms in public sector organisations in 2018”

I still feel positive for the work ahead in this new year. We have a chance to deal with all three. We have a chance to do a bit more, learn a bit more, and evaluate a bit more. With all the uncertainty in the world around us PR and communication can come into its own making people feel reassured, relaxed and confident. Only we can make the difference.

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‘No fluff’ revisited

Twelve months ago, I was compelled to write a blog to try and explain the important role that public sector communicators had following a critical article in a national newspaper. (You can read it through this link https://amandacomms1.wordpress.com/2018/01/07/no-fluff-here/) It is the same criticism and challenge that happens on a regular basis for anyone working as a public sector communicator which is to justify the money that is spent on both the work and the individual role.

At the time I was happy to try and explain and put some clarification to the national newspaper article which failed to recognise any of the vital work. I ended it with these words:

“And finally if any reporter from The Sun wants to come and see the reality of what we do then please get in touch and it can be arranged.”

I was never taken up on that offer which is a shame. But I have been reflecting on these words following an extremely busy move from 2018 to 2019. The events in Manchester ended the holiday break for many public sector communicators working in a whole range of organisations. I spoke to many on both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

They were there to help explain what had happened. They were there to help people find their way home. They were there to provide reassurance. They were there to help those affected. They were there to support the emergency services workers. They were there for a whole range of reasons.

Unfortunately, all that work and activity has gone largely unnoticed and unrecognised by much of the media. But it demonstrates what I was saying a year ago about the operational nature of public sector communications. My team are focused on helping victims, supporting investigations, helping to reduce crime and assist communities addressing issues.

When there is a crisis, they are there to help. When there is an urgent appeal that needs to go out about a crime they are there. When a person goes missing and we need people to help find them they are there. I could continue with an extensive list, but I won’t. I recently explain some of this recently to PR Week following an initiative that had quantified the impact of communication activity in preventing crime (https://www.prweek.com/article/1496881/comms-cheaper-policing-when-deterring-crime).

This year I will mark 20 years in police communication and I am as proud of the work we do now as I was back in 1999 when I joined Merseyside Police. Someone asked me the other day why I did it and the answer was simple – I want to come home at night and know I will have helped someone. It may sound trite and idealistic, but it is still the truth.

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Five things 2018 gave me

It is the last day of 2018 and a time to look back as well as forward to the 12 months ahead. I have long refused to do the New Years resolution thing but I do want to reflect on what I have learnt from this year.

I have five important messages that the events of 2018 have given me. I share this for anyone who might be interested.

  1. Mindfulness is more than a buzz phrase – all we have is this moment and yet we spend too much time in the past and the future. With the pressure of modern life it is essential we take care of our wellbeing and increase our resilience this means being focused on the ‘now’ more than we do.
  2. Make time for what makes your heart sing – in our busy lives work can take over and overshadow everything else. Ensuring there is a balance is important so you have time to recharge and recover. Spending time doing something that makes you happy will lift your mood.
  3. Take help when it is offered by friends – we all want to feel independent and in control so are often reluctant to take support when it is offered. People are incredibly supportive and those around you are there to help you there is no weakness in taking that assistance.
  4. Grab opportunities when they arise – you never know what is round the corner and 2019 will bring lots of opportunities you just need to be open to seeing them. This year has brought me many opportunities and I have tried to take up as many as possible.
  5. Give back and share when you can – you are unique. What you know is unique to you and can help others. Whether it is work information that can help others or it is a chance to give assistance to someone else, sharing is a great thing.

This has been the usual year of ups and downs. The usual year of laughter and tears. The usual year of arrivals and departures.

What matters is that I have survived it and have taken some valuable lessons forward into 2019.

Happy New Year everyone.

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