Taking it slowly

One minute we are wearing face masks, being told to work from home and to be cautious about an infectious Covid-19 variant. Then overnight we are out of masks, back on the daily commute to the office and can resume ‘normal’ life. The question is how can you communicate effectively when you move to recovery?

It starts with being clear about what recovery is, what it means and what may need to change for the future. Put the focus on what you have learnt from the experience and how this can improve lives, and organisations. Every crisis presents an opportunity to develop and make things better. It is the same as personal development, some times you have to get to the worse point to really improve.

Another key is to avoid rushing away from the situation you have been in. Don’t try to create false distance. And definitely don’t try to deny the experiences that people have had and what they have been through. It is why recovery can only really happen when the people who are most affected are ready to move to recovery.

Speeding away from a crisis brings many risks. There are risks that you will not see the next wave up ahead as you are blinkered, feeling you way out. That you will fail to learn key lessons from the experience and revisit plans to ensure they are improved and fit for the future. There are risks that you appear insensitive to those who may be grieving, upset or still trying to deal with what has happened.

Communicating out of crisis and into recovery is not easy. It is why we should train and plan for this latter part of the crisis and not just test our ability to respond to the initial problem. This week has left me with many concerns about opportunities that may be lost. Now is the time to take stock and be ready for the difficult months ahead.

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The times are changing

Around 25 years ago I was working as a journalist. It was a busy and pressured job but one that I really enjoyed. It was also an era when there was smoking in the office and regular lunchtime drinking. Just a quick drink and some lunch before getting back to finish the articles. It was almost expected of you if you were going to be ‘a real journalist’. But that was some time ago and the world has moved on.

When I started working in the police I quickly realised that it was as important what you did outside of work as inside. Being in the public sector brought extra responsibilities. For police officers, there is a requirement to demonstrate the highest professional standards at all times. There have been many occasions where people have come unstuck at work ‘dos’ and parties. It was why for most of my time I avoided any work related socialising. There were too many potential problems that it could bring, so it was easier to stay away.

Don’t misunderstand me I am not a killjoy. I have enjoyed a drink over the years but the times have changed. Smoking in the office is not allowed and drinking at work is far from the norm. This is why the revelations today about ‘wine time Friday’s’ in Downing Street feels so out of step with the way people work. This is a culture that is back in the 1970s or 1980s rather than 2022.

So, what needs to happen now? There must be a change in the culture and the way people work in and around Downing Street and Whitehall. The old ways of doing things are not acceptable any more and change is needed. People expect those in positions of power and authority to demonstrate the highest standards, and this is even more so at a time when restrictions are being put on people’s lives. The saying is that with great power comes great responsibility and it is important for those at the top of organisations to remember the responsibility that they carry.

I don’t doubt that the Sunday newspapers may have more revelations about drinking, gatherings and possible parties. There will be more that will come out because when behaviour becomes acceptable and normalised it will be seen regularly. When this behaviour is far from what is acceptable to other people it is time to take a good hard luck at what is happening. Whatever the report from Sue Gray says it is clear there needs to be a new culture that is evident. A culture where work is work and parties are parties, and rules are rules. The way those in power behave is not outside of the rules that everybody else is living within. This is an opportunity to make a change for the better.

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A war of words

I have lost count of the amount of times that I have heard the UK Government talk about the NHS being on a ‘war footing’ or that we are in a ‘war against Covid-19’. The phrase seems to be easily trotted out but what does it actually mean, if anything? And more importantly what impression does it create with people when they hear that being used?

Those old enough will remember the ‘war on terror’ becoming a phrase in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in America. It was used by then President George W Bush and subsequently was used by the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. But there is a lot of academic research about the impact of using the phrase, and whether it caused harm and made the situation worse. There is a view that it created a simplified view of the ‘enemy’ and assist the terrorists in developing their own narrative.

Now 20 years later we are if we believe the rhetoric we are in a war against an invisible enemy, this time a virus. The current pandemic is not equivalent of a war. There is no opposing side that is making decisions on the next step. This is not a situation where there will be a truce or one side will be victorious. What we know is that the virus will mutate, develop and change, and we will be learning to live with it in the same way we do with many other illnesses.

People listening to the ‘war’ analogy may have the mistaken view that there will be an end date. A point where the war ends and the virus disappears, and that we can use for future days of remembrance. This war may appear to be beyond our control as we passively wait for the next strategic decision by those in charge. In reality, we all have a key part to play in limiting the spread, development and future mutation of the virus. If the NHS is now on a ‘war footing’ what does that mean? Are they waiting for the enemy to attack people and send them into hospitals? The phrase just doesn’t stack up for me.

From March 2020, I have continued to talk about how important the words and phrases are that people in authority use when dealing with a crisis. It can mean the difference between trust and confidence in those in charge and people being confused, unsure of what to do. What we need now more than ever is clear and honest communication. Stop talking about a war on Covid-19 and start to help people understand how to manage risk and learn to live with the virus.

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Is it time to leave public sector communication?

This is a difficult question to ask but is it time for people to consider moving out of the public sector into something else? I spent most of my career working in the public sector. It was where I felt I could contribute the most and hopefully make a difference to people’s lives. Despite the hours, the lower pay, and the pressure, it always felt that I was doing good. But is there really a future in making a career in public sector communication?

From 2009/10 cuts to the public sector left many organisations with much smaller communication teams. Multi-skilling was seen as the way forward and streamlining the key to the future. Like most people I became frustrated with the phrase that was always used ‘doing more with less’. It became a very empty choice of words. In reality social media did pave the way for communication to develop in a different way but it didn’t reduce the amount of work that was expected. Gaps started to emerge and people started to see their workload increasing. It was like having a ‘to do’ list that just got longer and longer with each passing day.

From 2010 until 2020 there were many serious incidents that tested public sector communicators. Terrorist attacks, floods, fires there were so many challenges to those working in local authorities, health, emergency services and other public bodies. Every time something happened the communication teams stepped up and supported the emergency response. You can’t underestimate the impact that these events can have and the impact may be felt weeks, months or even years later. Being invested in an organisation can make emergencies a personal challenge.

The last two years have been a huge test to everyone in public sector communication. The pandemic has demanded a lot and left people exhausted with little resilience to face the next wave. I continue to be concerned about the toll that the pandemic has had on public sector communicators. The latest impact is the Government’s request to look at business continuity plans to deal with gaps in the workforce caused by the pandemic. January will not be a quiet month as the public sector has to work out how to keep essential services running while there are staffing gaps. Communicators will have the same problems to wrestle with, while also being faced with increased demands on them to communicate with employees and the public.

So, should people stay or look to something else? The key factor in this has to be whether the organisations realise what is happening and invest in looking after their staff. Do those at the top of the business realise the pressure that the communication teams are under? Are they willing to bring in extra help even for a short time? Will they ensure that people can, and do, take holidays and days off? Giving support in these difficult times is the most important thing. It will mean the difference between pressure that is manageable and demands that will push people to the edge and possibly out of the door.

Public sector communication is still something that is close to my heart. It gives so much to help organisations and not just at a time of crisis. Now is the time for those organisations to make sure that they are able to give something back and ultimately keep people working in public sector communication.

*If you are reading this and you are a public sector communicator then thank you for all you have done and continue to do. And if you are feeling the pressure please get in touch and perhaps make time for a 20minute reset with a #thinkthroughbrew .

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Three little words

The Christmas and New Year holidays is a time to reflect and for many to set some intentions for the coming year. For many years I have avoided making any resolutions because they are almost instantly forgotten. Instead, I try to focus on what I want to achieve during the coming months. But before that is a moment to look back on 2021 to see the highs and lows.

I took the opportunity of joining an online group to reset and prepare for 2022. The focus is on reflecting, seeing the positive, releasing the negative aspects and then setting an intent for the next 12 months. There are daily tasks to do which help to focus your thinking over 12 days. After what has been a difficult December with the Omicron variant, threats of lockdowns, and another Christmas that is less than normal, turning my thoughts to the positive is welcome.

There are always good and bad things that happen in every year, that is just life. What matters is that we move on from those dark days, build our resilience and find ways to learn and grow even when faced with the worst. This is not something that I find easy. I, like many, will focus on the negativity and potentially see everything through the lens of failure and disappointment. Changing your mindset takes time and a lot of hard work.

This year has marked my 50 years on the earth. It is the first full calendar year of my business. It was my Mum and Dad’s 55th wedding anniversary. These were all significant milestones for me. 2021 was the year that my horse had his 25th birthday, and that my rabbit came back from the brink thanks to expert veterinary care. It was also the year new opportunities opened up for me. The moment I stepped in front of the camera to be interviewed. Where I continued to make great connections and to work with amazing people. A year where I was busy throughout and had started to believe in my business.

Throughout the past 12 months there have been so many people that have helped me along the way. A huge amount of support to lift me in the difficult moments and to celebrate successes. It is easy to fail to see this in a busy, fast moving life.

So the challenge today was to try and positively sum up 2021 in just three words. It isn’t as easy to do as you might think. After lots of reflection I came up with – opportunity, love and confidence. Those are the things that I need to take from 2021. I would ask you to try to do the same, but make sure that you keep it positive.

Happy New Year and wishing you all a healthy and prosperous 2022.

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10 lessons from 2021

Just a few days of 2021 are left and it always feels like a time to reflect and take stock of what I have learnt during the past 12 months. We are still living through a crisis and it continues to bring with it fear, concern and uncertainty. There have been highs and lows, problems and successes that we have all experienced. But what has 2021 brought me and my fledgling business?

It seems quite a surprise that we are in December when just a few moments ago I was preparing to pay my first tax bills for the business. The days and weeks have flown by with a large part of it affected by Covid-19 restrictions. I had jabs, a trip on a train for the first time in almost three years, an odd feeling when I did face-to-face training, and continued to connect with people around the world. There was a 50th birthday in lockdown, some sunny weather, my parents emerald wedding anniversary, and a booster jab. I had stressful moment with ill animals and joy at many of their antics.

The year is ending as it started full of uncertainty, Covid-19 fears, and increasing restrictions. In the coming days we may know a bit more about how 2021 will become 2022 and in what way celebrations will be acceptable. Whatever happens I hope you have a great Christmas and find a way to celebrate safely. Remember the small things are what matters most and for anyone facing the day on their own it is important to remember it is just one day and there is support available if you need it.

Here are 10 things I have learnt during 2021:

  1. Keep things in perspective – it is easy to become engrossed in something and for it to become all encompassing. Take a moment to step away, look at it from a different perspective and recognise that it may not be as significant as you thought it was.
  2. People matter more than things – I think we have all realised how much relationships, friends and family are the most important things in our lives. It doesn’t matter how much you have if you are lonely.
  3. Look after your body – I wish I had took more notice of this when I was younger but now as I have reached a half century I am starting to realise that my body is not as indestructible as I once thought it was. I need to take better care of myself as we move into 2022.
  4. A business needs a business coach – I was lucky enough in the summer to be eligible for a small business support scheme. This gave me access to a business coach, training sessions, and personal coaching sessions.
  5. Step out of your comfort zone – I did this when I stepped in front of the camera to do an interview for ITV Calendar about the situation at Yorkshire Cricket Club. I am much happier behind the camera advising others so this was definitely pushing my boundaries.
  6. Do what you love and you will do your best – a few years ago I was a communication all-rounder. I had to understand all elements and be able to lead a team delivering it all. Now, I focus on crisis, risk, resilience and reputation. I can do the other things but this is where my passion is and I know that in focusing on crisis communication I do my best work.
  7. Spend time living in the now – we can easily get caught up in looking forward or dwelling in the past which means we fail to see what is happening right now. With all the uncertainty this Christmas living in the moment and enjoying it seems like a good place to be.
  8. Don’t compare yourself to others – it is wasted energy to look at what other people are doing and compare yourself. Take small steps to build your confidence in ploughing your own furrow and being unique.
  9. Supporting others brings its own rewards – I have got so much from the mentoring and coaching that I have undertaken this year. There is a lot to learn from others and I am grateful for the opportunity to share as well as discuss communication issues.
  10. If you dream it you can do it – my business is almost two years old and continues to grow and develop. I have been grateful for all the help and support that I have been given during this time. Some years ago this was a distant dream. In March 2020 it was a huge risk to try it out. But it has been worth all the ups and downs. I wake up every day excited about what I do. Taking a risk can lead you to better things.

Every year brings ups and downs, good and bad, things to learn and move on from and things to celebrate. I take another 12 months of learning and developing in to 2022 and hopefully will be a bit more resilient to what may lie ahead.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Stay safe and stay strong.

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Another day, another press conference

I gave a sigh and then made a note that 5pm was the time to check out the latest Number 10 Covid press conference. It seems like we are on a merry-go-round of announcements, discussions, media, restrictions and then release. But this time the ‘freedom day’ seems like a long time ago and the future once again appears uncertain.

The situation appears serious with the message to get a booster and limit the amount of people you have contact with but set against the Christmas build up that continues it feels inconsistent. Work from home but still go out to pubs and restaurants. Like many I am struggling to understand what the real picture is and what may develop in the coming months. If there is a logic to the messages and restrictions I am struggling to see it. But it is already having an impact on me as it will many businesses.

Face-to-face meetings and training is being pushed into later dates in 2022. I do the majority of my work online and virtually but still have seen an impact. My fear is that so many businesses will be affected and struggle to survive the current situation. Christmas is usually a boom time but not so much this year. I have heard some terrible stories of how small businesses are being affected. Has anyone seen Rishi Sunak recently.

Each press conference focuses on the statistics, the booster and the restrictions. It doesn’t look at the implications of those decisions, how businesses should look at the coming months, and where support is available. My mind keeps wandering back to late March and April 2020 when, like many, my situation looked dire. I was starting a new business, there was a pandemic, and I didn’t know how things would develop.

Almost two years on and I have been busier than ever. I have a diary that is already getting full for January and February 2022. I am planning ahead. Now is all that going to disappear?

Every day I think about, talk about, and write about crisis communication. I provide counsel to organisations that find themselves struggling with a situation, issue or incident. Now I find I have to turn this onto myself and look at crisis management to take me through the next few months. My three key points will be:

  1. Find a way to keep positive and remember what I have learnt during the past two years
  2. Identify the opportunities that exist even in the middle of restrictions
  3. You can find joy in the little things

This does feel like a slightly eerie and worrying time. Moving out of crisis and then back into it is never going to be an easy thing to deal with. What we all need to remember is that we can get through this together.

If you are a small business that would like some free advice or a communication freelancer who would like a #thinkthroughbrew to help reflect and recharge now and over the festive period just get in touch with me at amanda@amandacolemancomms.co.uk

Now is the time to stay safe, stay strong and stay focused.

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Moving into testing times

It was just a matter of time before there was a tightening of restrictions due to the Omicron variant. What I don’t think anyone expected was to see Plan B introduced at a time when trust and confidence in the Government has taken such a significant hit. Watching the press conference tonight it was clear that the mood and tone have changed.

Many people who had previously been very compliant or even disinterested in the situation have suddenly become very animated over the situation that has emerged in the past 24 hours. Early indications are that there is more questioning of who obeys the rules and whether they are important to everyone.

I have written many times of the importance of actions as much as words when dealing with a crisis. It is one thing to say what people need to do but it has to be backed up by a demonstration of following the guidance by all connected with it. Those at the top have a duty to show people what they need to do during a crisis. The recent events have turned this upside down.

What does this mean for communicators? It means the situation just got much harder to manage. People will be more inclined to follow their own rules and experiences rather than listen to guidance from the Government. I hope that local authorities can still leverage the support that they have gained during the past two years. This is a moment when other experts are needed to step in. People who have credibility and will be able to cut through the current apathy, anger and frustration.

The pandemic was always going to be a long running crisis. It was never going to be over by Easter, or Christmas and this was a message that should have been introduced long before we reached the end of 2021. The Tesco advert (with a message of nothing getting in the way of this Christmas) is starting to look out of touch with where we are.

My three tips from where we are:

  1. Be clear and honest with employees about what is required from them and why
  2. Use experts and people who have credibility when encouraging people to adhere to restrictions
  3. Listen to people’s concerns and use them to refine the communication approach

There is a lot more that is required in the days and weeks ahead but it is time for communicators to take a deep breath and keep focused on what matters.

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The party is over

Does anyone remember what they were doing 12 months ago? I was in the process of changing my Christmas plans so thbrat I limited contact with people. I wanted to be able to spend some quality time with my parents after what had been such a challenging year, and to do that safely I had to make sure I didn’t meet many people. Social distancing happened but I was lucky that I could see my parents and spend some moment with them. Many other people couldn’t and were on their own on Christmas Day.

It appears that if you were an employee at Downing Street you were able to enjoy a party, which may or may not be fictional depending on who you choose to believe. The footage that has emerged tonight of staff joking about the situation days after it may (or may not) have happened is shocking. It is shocking on many levels. There were people losing loved ones, struggling with their mental health, and trying to stay safe for themselves and their family.

Whether or not the party happened (which I hope we get the definitive position on soon) the ongoing discussion, debate and denial has only served to damage trust and confidence in the Government. It is leading to conversations about if there are lies over this what else are there lies about? All this is hugely damaging at a time when people need to trust the response to the Omnicron variant.

It is not just a distraction anymore it is quickly becoming the main conversation. It is not a trivial matter it is seriously threatening to undermine the crisis response.

I had the opportunity this morning of speaking on a panel at the Global Communication Summit about crisis response Covid and the role of whistleblowers. Given that we are 12 months from these events I am surprised that there was no-one operating as whistleblower to the behaviour that may have been taking place. One of the key points made this morning was that facts matter, people matter, and honesty matters.

Perhaps this is time for a new style of political leadership one that is built on trust, honesty, and a desire to serve people. One where the rules and laws apply to everyone and there is accountability when things go wrong. These are the principles I talk about of effective crisis communication, where we are at the moment is far from that.

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Capturing the learning

If we thought 2020 was a difficult year I think we have all found 2021 as hard if not harder to navigate through. This is something I talk about a lot when looking at crisis management and communication. The initial stages of a crisis are a challenge but things become much more complicated and challenging as it develops and ultimately moves towards a recovery phase.

The arrival of the Omicron variant has reminded us we are far from reaching the end of the pandemic. There is still a lot that we need to understand and to be ready to address. All crises lead us towards change, transformation of systems, processes and organisations, and a need to refocus our focus on risk and crisis management. What we are experiencing now is the unsettling feeling of having questions that cannot yet be answered and hopefully a dawning realisation that some things need to change.

We cannot always just pick up from where things were before the crisis hit, and this is a difficult message to try and explain to people. It is even more difficult when there has been so much focus on the pandemic being ‘over by Easter’ or ‘over by Christmas’. Listening to the many radio phone ins and wading through social media you can see and hear the damage that has been done by over promising about things that you cannot be certain will happen.

In the middle of the current state of flux there is one thing we can do and that is to capture the learning we have had during this year. This is why I have set up an advent giveaway for the best crisis communication lessons of 2021. I will be giving away a copy of my book Crisis Communication Strategies to whoever provides the best lesson. The deadline to get the lesson to me by either social media or email (amanda@amandacolemancomms.co.uk) is Wednesday 15 December at 9am.

Sharing the learning we have is essential to improving the way we approach crisis, risk and recovery communication. They can be large or small, about external or internal communication. Whatever you feel you have benefitted from learning this year help to share it with others. I look forward to reading the messages.

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