Eyes wide open

A 0.5 per cent interest rate rise. Is that a good or bad thing? Would we know unless we rely on others to interpret it? Today there has been a lot of analysis about the Bank of England’s decision and I am sure most people will look for the headlines to decide what it means for them. Alternatively, they may be struggling so much already that they fatalistically accept any change will mean more problems.

The headline that the UK will be in recession by the end of the year will be the one thing that people do understand. It will raise fears and anxiety. This fear will be exacerbated when people feel they have no options left to try and manage the cost of living increases. After the food bills have been cut, the heating has been turned down or switched off, the transport bills have been slashed what more can people do? Many people are attempting to hold down multiple jobs just to keep their heads above water.

What does this mean for those working in communication? What does it mean for businesses and how they operate?

We need to start planning now for the potentially challenging situation ahead. This means reviewing business processes, identifying operational issues that may need to be addressed and rooting out any areas of reputational concern. At the same time communicators need to be extra sensitive to the difficulties in the world. It is a delicate balance of promoting the business but doing it in the right way for a country in crisis with a recession looming.

The risks if we don’t do this are tone deaf communication activities and campaigns that lead us into a reputational crisis. We can do much better if we just take some time to consider the situation and reassess what we are doing. I am predicting in the months that lie ahead there will be a whole host of organisations that are forced to apologise because they haven’t made any changes. There will be more CEOs of Wessex Water who are criticised when their personal actions and behaviours don’t match what they recommend for others. For anyone that has missed the story. There was criticism that the CEO had a swimming pool while the company was warning against non-essential use of the water supplies.

2022 is testing our resilience and our ability to respond to further challenging situations. We are still dealing with the impact of Covid-19, are now tackling Monkeypox, have war in Europe, are seeing food, fuel and heating prices soar, and now are heading to recession. The enlightened employers will also recognise the impact all this is having on their staff and will look at how to provide support. The headlines today will raise fears and concerns so it is time to act.

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Failing to put the pieces together

Imagine the situation: the business you lead has experienced the death of two workers while doing their job. You get asked to do a media interview about the situation, do you do it or say nothing until investigations into the deaths have concluded? It is a difficult decision but I hope most communication professionals would be keen to show empathy towards the families who have been bereaved.

When I read the comments this week of Herb Black the president and owner of American Iron and Metal (AIM) I was stunned. Despite the deaths at the West Side metal recycling plant he couldn’t find any humanity to share with the media but instead chose to say ‘I’m not god’. You can see the CBC interview here. The appearance may be emotional but the comments were robust and strident.

It may have been wiser to wait until there is more clarity about the cause of the deaths and what this means for the safety operation at the Saint John plant. When you are dealing with such a tragedy being defensive, avoiding responsibility, and trying to discuss the risks that we all face in life is always going to feel unacceptable. I was particularly shocked by the phrase ‘sh*t happens in life’ when being questioned about the safety records.

An investigation is underway by Worksafe NB which may take up to 12 months to conclude and even though Mr Black says he respects and is working with investigators he attempts to start to defend himself and the business. He also appears to blame human error for the first death and talks about he he could not see how it could be prevented. All areas that should have been avoided as the investigation needs to be the one to decide on the cause and the possibilities it could have been avoided.

One area that could have been covered was the safety operation at the plant and the measures that were in place. In such situations if there is a strong safety culture with people responsible for enforcing regulations there may be something positive to say but at the right time. When Mr Black was asked who was responsible for safety at the plant he replied: “You have to make a connection with the Lord and ask him. I’m not God. I don’t decide.” He avoided giving any details of safety practices.

At a press conference Mr Black was accompanied by a family member who had been bereaved who said she had no ill feeling towards the company and said social media rumour and speculation had caused them more pain. This should have been the focus of the media briefing rather than Mr Black. The voice of those most affected needs to be the loudest in discussing any crisis situation. When you take this media briefing apart and look at the pieces it could have been very different. There could have been an opportunity to show contrition and a willingness to support the investigation, to support those affected and to look to learn and change in the future.

Did this media briefing work? Given the negative feedback online and the frosty relationships with the journalists I doubt it. In this case saying nothing may have been the better option. I will be watching the developments in this case with interest.

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Phew. What a scorcher

I am a little disappointed that the old tried and trusted headline of ‘phew. What a scorcher’ didn’t appear in the newspapers during the heatwave this week. Heatwave doesn’t feel like the right word to describe what happened and I am more comfortable to describe it as extreme heat or extreme weather. Reaching 40 degree heat is something I didn’t think I would ever see in the UK, and it even reached 39 in the north west according to my thermometer.

There has been a huge amount of discussion and debate about whether this situation was being overplayed and that we have lived through heatwaves before. I have read a lot about 1976, and as someone that was very young but does remember it there was a prolonged period of hot weather, and ladybirds, but not the extreme heat we have just experienced. It is not, as some have suggested, that young generations are not up to facing hot weather, the start of the week has been much more than hot weather.

In the UK we are not used to weather conditions that cause emergencies and lead to disasters. Other parts of the world are prepared for extreme heat and cold, for tornadoes, hurricanes and for earthquakes. We rarely see these conditions which means the need to prepare carefully when there are forecasts of problems ahead. It was a huge surprise to me that the first COBR meeting (not COBRA as keeps being used) was not until the day before the extreme weather was due to arrive. The Cabinet Office Briefing Room meeting is where the plans will be put in place, consequences managed and resilience established. It doesn’t need the Prime Minister to be in attendance. Much has been made of the fact that Boris Johnson was not involved. It is not required but as he is in the twilight of his time in office it was an opportunity to demonstrate leadership.

My main frustration with the way things developed in the past few days was the lack of sensible messaging about what people needed to do. For more than a week the weather forecasters and news rooms have been predicting the hot weather. There have been graphics showing dark red over the UK which can only serve to increase fear or even disinterest in the repeated message. People needed to know how to keep cool, how to protect themselves and their property, how to avoid heat stroke and above all what they could do to prepare.

When life is hard and there is a daily struggle to make ends meet it is incredibly challenging to get people to think about preparing for some possible future events. The day to day is the priority so the future security has to take a back seat. This is why leaders need to make sure they are focusing on being prepared. If they don’t do it who will?

Latest news is that we could face floods after the extreme heat. This it time to add climate risks to your business and organisation risk register.

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How to communicate a nuclear attack

If you paint yourself white, hide under a table and have lots of takeaway food that may be the way to survive a nuclear attack. For those old enough to remember a UK television comedy of the early 1980s called The Young Ones that was the way they laughed at what was covered in the Protect and Survive Manual. I still have a copy of that manual which was developed around 20 years earlier to give people advice on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

I remember being at primary school and trying to work out what I could do if there was a warning of a nuclear attack. Could I make it home to be with my family? What would it feel like? Would I have to hide at school? This may all sound a bit extreme but for anyone of my generation it was a real threat and one that was talked about and became the subject of television dramas. So with the public service information released in New York this week all these thoughts came flooding back.

If you haven’t seen it New York City Emergency Management Department circulated a video that started with the words “So there has been a nuclear attack…” and went on to give advice about staying indoors, going to a basement or away from windows, staying inside and waiting for more information. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-5d7V4Sbqk) There was no context to it other than that the department was sharing important information in the event of an attack. I was interested to see how it would be received.

Quite quickly there were memes being shared making light of the announcement. But I am sure that there were many other people who were fearful about the reason behind why that information and why now. To explain New York Mayor Eric Adams said he approved of the message saying it was about ‘preparedness’ and ‘taking necessary steps after what happened in Ukraine’. But is this enough? Will people really understand how to be prepared? Are we making them alert or alarmed? If this happened in the UK how would it land?

I have been reflecting a lot recently about how we can help and support people to be more prepared for disasters, emergencies and crises. Starting the conversation about terrible situations is not simple. People will want to turn away from discussing terrible moments that may happen in their lives, and will always feel these things are likely to affect others rather than themselves. This is challenging and there needs to be some careful thought and discussion. We need people to want to be prepared, not scared or hiding from the real risks of life. Are we even having conversations about real risks that people face?

The possibility of a nuclear attack is there. The possibility of an asteroid striking the earth is there. The possibility of a zombie apocalypse is there. Are we going to experience these things tomorrow? Who knows but it is less likely than that we may contract Covid-19, we may injure ourselves at home, or we may be involved in an accident on the roads. There are many other issues or problems that we could benefit from starting a conversation about being prepared for. Believe me I still know what is in that Protect and Survive Manual although how helpful it would be is really a subject for another discussion. Let’s start the conversation about preparedness with something that is more immediately meaningful for people.

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The best person for the job

We are witnessing one of the most unedifying situations as individuals fight to lead the Tory party and become the Prime Minister. There have already been smears, accusations and slick campaign logos. By the end of today, the number of people in the running will have been whittled down to those with the required amount of supporters. It is one of the most unusual ways to secure a job.

It has reminded me of the job interviews I have faced over the years both good and bad. There were ones where my professional ability was tested and this included gladiatorial debates with the other applicants for the role. There were ones where I realised within minutes that it was not the place I wanted to be. There were ones where I was too desperate for the role and managed to forget everything but my name.

In a world where we have such amazing technology and innovative working practices, why do we still persist in carrying out interviews in this old-fashioned way. There has to be a better way for us to decide whether someone has the required abilities, experience and knowledge to carry out a role. In senior police appointments there will be panels, events and an interview among the things that are used to help decide who is fit to lead that force. Senior appointments should never be down to a popularity test. So what should people demonstrate:

  1. Ability to undertake the role – a bit of an obvious one but you have to be able to carry out the required tasks for the job you are planning to do. Your experience of it may be limited but there is no point in going for a French speaking role if you can’t speak French. In the same way there is no point going for a head of communication role if you have never worked in communication.
  2. Leadership skills – this is a difficult one as with all organisations there will be different approaches to leadership, what is accepted and what is required. But what I mean is the ability to lead a team, to motivate and support people, to manage the way through when challenges emerge, and to help define and work to a shared future.
  3. Being human – this may sound a bit odd but many people who get to the top of organisations are in the INTJ group within Myers Briggs – I know because that was where I was on the two occasions I was tested. This makes thinking about people first an alien concept. But being able to motivate, understand and support the workforce is vital.
  4. Able to collaborate – being able to bring people together to achieve a required outcome whether that is within the business or involving people outside the business should be something that is at the top of any list of requirements for someone in a senior position.
  5. It isn’t about you – the final and most important thing is that someone at the top of an organisation should be approaching it for the right reasons. It is not about you having a big office, a big car, a big job title, or a big pension. It is about wanting to do the best for the business or organisation in whatever it does. This is even more critical for anyone in public service and definitely the person who wants to be leading the country.

All those elements can not be found by a 45 minute interview or a short test and interview with a panel. It needs a new way of conducting an interview that would really get to understand who is the right person for the job. One thing is sure it cannot be a popularity contest or we will be walking blindfolded into the wrong decision. I am interested to hear about any different ways of approaching recruitment that are in place. If you know of somebody doing things differently let me know.

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Lies, damn lies and factual inaccuracies

Being in a communication role for an organisation is a position of responsibility. I felt it when I was working in house and I see it now when I work with businesses and organisations. This is why both the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and the Public Relations and Communication Association (PRCA) focus heavily on the importance of ethics and ethical behaviour from communicators.

You are the person providing answering media questions, providing updates about what the organisation is doing, and finding ways to present and represent the business. It is your statements that will be used, your posts that will be seen on social media, and your communications that will be sent to employees. It is why integrity is so critical to PR and communication.

There are always going to be occasions where senior people lie or fail to provide the relevant detail to beleaguered communication staff. Sometimes this manipulation will not be known until much later and sometimes we may never know that this happened. It is why communicators need to ask questions, to probe and to seek clarification if they are unhappy about a line they are being given. This is not easy.

At times I have outright asked senior people in the organisation I was working in or for whether they had provided the full details. Had they left out important details? Were they being open and honest with me? These are questions that are not as simple to ask as it may seem. Once you have the answer it leaves you in a difficult position. Do you stay if you find you have been lied to? Do you lie if you are asked to? How can you continue working in that same organisation if you fear lies or factual inaccuracies?

It is easier as a seasoned communicator to be prepared to say no, to expose unacceptable requests and to walk away from things you are unhappy about. As a junior in a team or a new employee it is much harder to be comfortable in walking away. Why is this important?

There have been a lot of articles and comments criticising Number 10s press office for the comments and statements this week. But it is not always clear exactly what is taking place behind closed doors. Perhaps there are people fearful they may lose a job. Perhaps there are people new in service who don’t feel able to challenge. Perhaps they are believing everything they are being told. I also know that there may be people deliberately creating statements or developing words to confuse or misinform. For me such people are not communicators.

When we take up a job in PR and communication for any organisation it comes with responsibilities. We have our own ethics and values and need to stand by these. The past week in Number 10 risks damaging the whole PR and communication profession. We will all have to be clearer in our ethical approach and demonstrate what we stand for. Honest and integrity are so fundamental to communication without it we lose trust and the organisation will ultimately be dealt a significant blow.

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Crisis communication under review

Three years ago I thought all my Christmases had come at once when I was given the opportunity to write a book. It was the achievement of a life long ambition and despite the concern that it would be good enough, I really enjoyed the writing process. Of course, it also helped that it was about something that really matters to me – effective crisis communication. The exciting news I shared this week is that I am working on a second edition.

I now have the opportunity to revisit the original words and look at how things may have developed, what needs to be included and what may need to change. My challenge this time is going to be to keep within the word count and find elements to cut.

The second edition is due to be published in March 2023 so work is take place in earnest now to ensure the deadlines are met. And this is where I am hoping you will help whether you have read the original book or not.

Two elements that I feel absolutely must be covered in more detail now I have the opportunity are diversity and inclusivity in crisis communication and ways to evaluate your crisis communication during the lifespan of the situation. The question I am asking is what do you feel needs to be included in the new edition?

Do you want to understand more about how to manage risks?

Would you like to see a model crisis communication strategy?

Are you concerned about how to prepare and brief a spokesperson?

Does managing a long running crisis cause you concern?

Is there an issue with misinformation and how to tackle it?

If none of the above are a problem for you then what would you like to see within the new edition of the book? And what crises interest you and which would you like to see as case studies?

The world has changed substantially since I was writing the original book in 2019. We have seen a pandemic, war in Europe and a cost of living crisis. All of this will help me to critically assess whether any of the points, plans, checklists and principles that I originally shared need to be changed. In many cases I know that these recent events have reinforced my thinking about the most effective crisis communication response. But I will be ensuring the most up-to-date practical information is included in the new edition.

I would love to hear your thoughts on what to include, what interests you and also what crisis communication issues give you sleepless nights. If you have any thoughts please email me at amanda@amandacolemancomms.co.uk

Thanks to everyone who has bought the original edition of Crisis Communication Strategies and to Kogan Page for giving me the opportunity to write a second edition.

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Are you one of the ‘preppers ’?

What would you do if a solar flare knocked out the power across the world for an extended period of time? How would you cope? And have you ever even thought about such an event?

The dilemma is the subject under consideration in a new book that was being reviewed on the radio this week. It made me consider how prepared should we be and what is it right to get ready for.

It appears there are survivalist groups that spend time preparing for Armageddon or all the things that could happen in the way to it. They stockpile food and supplies so they could deal with whatever happens. These are the same people who used the Covid-19 pandemic to hunker down and see how they could get through it.

Are they odd or are they just the ultimate in prepared for an emergency? Where can we draw the line between those two? I spend my time talking to people about the importance of being prepared. The priority that should be given to crisis communication planning and the testing of those plans. Does that make me one of the ‘preppers’?

I am not going to fill my spare room with survival food, batteries and bottles of water. But we do need to have some things ready for any blackouts that may happen. Storm Arwen and other events have shown us that being ready to deal with having no power for an extended period of time has to be considered. As a communicator how will you get messages out of you have no laptop and no access to social media? How will you speak to journalists if your mobile phone has no charge?

There are lots of options that we can consider and have ready for when we may need them. We all need to be a little more prepared for crises and emergencies. Does that make me a ‘prepper’? No, but we all need to think the unthinkable so we can be able to function no matter what happens.

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Five lessons from a place of grief

It is now six weeks since my life was turned upside down with the sudden and unexpected death of my Mum. At the time I wrote about the despair and loss that I felt and it is still with me.

Grief is something I hadn’t paid much attention to over the years. My life had been pretty stable and except for the death of my grandparents everything had jogged along pretty ok. How lucky I was and yet I never realised it.

Since my eyes have been opened to the pain that exists in the world I can see my former life as the privileged time that it was. There is so much grief in the world and it never gets recognised. We brush over it and avoid talking about it. I do this all the time with my usual ‘I am fine’ reply.

In recent weeks I have posted on social media some of the ups and downs of what I am going through. It isn’t because I want to get anything in reply. All I want to do is to try and get people to see what is happening before their eyes and to encourage people to talk about grief. We should not shy away from it.

What I have learnt from the recent weeks can be summed up in five points:

1. Appreciate what you have every day and find the good

2. Tell those you love that you love them today, don’t wait as tomorrow may never come

3. Be a little bit kinder than you need to (that was one of my Mum’s mantras)

4. Grief is not linear and comes in waves so be easy on yourself

5. Life is incredibly fragile so never take it for granted. Grab every day.

For everyone who has shared, liked or commented on those recent posts thank you. All the kind words are helpful.

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PR at a crossroads

It seems that PR and communication is going through a state of flux and change in the aftermath of two years dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) latest State of the Profession report gives some insight into an industry that has built a strong position in the past 24 months but is now experiencing uncertainty. There is no surprise then that the biggest challenge identified is the mental health of practitioners.

Once again with the report it is not what is included but what happens once it has been published. With the CIPR report there is clearly a lot that can be done to support both the profession and the practitioners in the coming months. It needs to start with encouraging people into the profession so that there is a increased number of people who can develop and train to full the vacancies that exist. But it also has to go through to those who have been working for longer who need to be skilled for the future and ready to deal with the changes ahead.

We are on the fence at the minute. One one side there is the chance to grow the reputation of PR and communication, secure that seat as a special advisor at the top table, shape the development of business and organisations. While on the other is the move back into the traditional world of producing materials and developing things requested by those in the business. The latter we can see with the continued focus on copywriting and editing as the primary activity.

The side that we choose will set the course for the profession in the coming years. It is important that we choose well and that is something where we all have a role to play. We must ensure we are skilled to meet the future demands including sustainability, risk management, and artificial intelligence. We must understand the way businesses operate and be able to talk the language of the business. We must work to build our own, our team and our business’s resilience to make it through these uncertain times.

It was surprising for me to see that crisis and issues management had dropped from the top five PR activities this year. We must ensure there is no complacency that develops from moving through the pandemic. The learning from 2020 onwards needs to be used to refresh our approach to crisis communication and issues management. Communicators have a key role to play in identifying problems at an early stage and helping to limit the impact. But this means still recognising the fragility of modern life. Planning and preparing for those future issues and risks will build our resilience by providing some certainty when faced with problems. In turn these things can reduce the impact on our mental wellbeing.

The PR and communication profession has a lot to offer as a career, as part of society, and as a support to business development. It is clear from the CIPR State of the Profession Report 2022 that we are at a crossroads which may define how things progress in the future.

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