Concern, controversy and crisis – 5 ways for comms to survive Christmas

Is it just me or does the build-up to this Christmas feel much harder than usual? On a personal level there are a lot of emotions that I am wrestling with but this is more about the feeling that exists when I am talking to people, when I am out in the shops or when I am talking about the festive break. The cost of living crisis, war in Europe and climate crisis are on our minds. But even the World Cup has brought with it concern, controversy and crisis.

In a number of recent presentations that I have given there is a slide that I keep using and it has one word on it – chaos. We have become used pre-2020 to a world of relative consistency where we would be able to plan six, 12 and even five years ahead with a degree of certainty. Slight issues would emerge and disappear and yet we could see the long-term road ahead. Now I spend a lot of time encouraging people to plan for 12 to 18 months but be ready for things to derail that approach.

The key for 2023 and the way forward is going to be flexibility and being able to change and adapt to events. I nearly wrote unexpected events but even those events we plan for can become a problem due to external factors.

Covid-19 took a lot out of people, particularly those caught up in the communication that was required at the same time they were trying to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. So, it feels harsh to say that the approach to that crisis needs to become mainstreamed. Being ready to flex, adapt and change plans, is an essential skill. Being able to see the bumps in the road, and to effectively horizon scan are critical.

As communicators our major challenge is maintaining our own resilience and finding ways to help people find a way through the current crises. I can only see this increasing given the current issues that are being faced. So, what should we do?

  1. Recognise that things are hard and don’t expect too much from yourself, your team or your communication and remember this when you are working on projects and issues
  2. Take time away from the news and analysis of it when you are feeling overwhelmed
  3. Make plans that have back-ups, can accommodate changes and focus on a way forward rather than a fixed destination
  4. Know that nothing is perfect, including the festive season, and try to enjoy what you do have instead of looking for other things
  5. If you are feeling under pressure, low or in need of some help reach out and speak to people

On that last bullet point, I will be available for festive #thinkthroughbrew sessions throughout December. If you would like to chat through things now, how 2022 has been or what 2023 may be just get in touch.

We know that times are hard, and things are difficult, but this is when coming together and helping each other, as happened in the pandemic and at times of crisis, is important.

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Who’s a celebrity?

It is a programme I usually avoid but this year’s ‘I’m a celebrity…’ has me hooked. I hate myself for it but what I find I am doing is trying to use the small pieces we get to see to assess body language and to see what is said about purpose and intent. What I am looking at is whether there is any acknowledgement by Matt Hancock of the horror and enormity of the Covid-19 crisis.

Leadership in a crisis is a tough thing. There is a huge amount of pressure, the requirement to make key decisions often with limited information. I have seen it when it goes well and when there are problems. In my time within the police, I have seen very senior officers slam their hands on the tables in a meeting, use raised voices, and show bewildered looks when they are faced with some incident. They train and prepare for these moments but even that can’t prepare you fully for those moments of extreme pressure.

So, what about the Government of the time and the pandemic? From what has been said and written since the pandemic and lockdowns happened you could be forgiven for thinking that everything went well and there was no learning to be had. It is easy to say ‘we did our best’ but that can never be good enough for people who have lost loved ones in a crisis. It needs some recognition of what has happened and a desire to learn and improve that is needed before you can move forward.

This is one of my problems with Matt Hancock. There is a massive lack of understanding about the impact that the decisions he and colleagues made. People lost their lives, people lost their loved ones, and in some cases, people lost their livelihoods. This is a huge burden of responsibility that appears to be ignored by politicians. For me, if this was understood then Hancock would have never even set foot in the jungle.

Coming to terms with his actions, what has happened and his part in it, is something that should have played out behind closed doors. My advice would have been to take some time in processing his part in what happened, focus on the job of being an MP and avoid the spotlight so he can learn and then move forwards. But the one thing ‘I’m a celebrity…’ seems to be is about publicising yourself, oh and the large pay check.

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What is the future for social media in a crisis?

Around 20 years ago communicators were having to get to grips with this emerging thing known as social media. It wasn’t easy. After years of being focused on working with the media and developing campaigns there was something that looked like it was going to have a huge impact. Social media has transformed approaches to communication putting the opportunity into the hands of everyone. But with Twitter and Meta both making staff redundant what next for social media?

In truth I don’t think anyone really knows. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle so social media in some form will always be part of our lives, but I am questioning whether its stranglehold over PR and communication is loosening.

I have long been a supporter of social media despite all the problems it brings. There are a lot of opportunities it has presented communicators over the years. This has been particularly noticeable during a crisis. It gives the chance to provide immediate messages about actions to take, what is happening. It can help to gather views about what is happening and what people have witnessed. It brings people together to provide support to get through the incident.

So, if social media is diminishing how should we change our crisis communication plans? The first thing that is important is to really understand where your audiences are and where the people are when you need to communicate after something happens. This will undoubtedly require a range of channels are used and social media cannot be the only option. Planning for what communication is send through what channels is essential in this period of change and uncertainty.

There is a huge issue with trust and confidence and what people are prepared to listen to or believe. Interesting work at the moment is considering the echo chambers and hopefully future steps will provide guidance about how PR can address this phenomenon. Social media does not build confidence. It is effective coherenet communications that can build confidence.

Life is ever changing. Communication is ever changing. For me, this is the exciting element of the work we do looking for the next thing and assessing societal developments. If social media is fading from prominence how will you build confidence, and deal with a crisis?

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When crises attack

It has been a torrid time for the UK Government in recent months. Three Prime Ministers later and the focus seemed to be on calming things – the public, the markets and the rest of the Conservative Party. But just days into his time in Number 10 Rishi Sunak seems to be besieged by scandal and criticism that has more than a whiff of crisis around it. So where were the problems and what can he do from this point?

Let’s look at the first issue which was the swift reappointment of Suella Braverman to Home Secretary despite her resigning for a breach of the ministerial code. This, according to the political experts, was a move to try to bring elements of the party together. But it was a move that was always going to cast a shadow over the words that he would build confidence in the Government. Since the appointment was made there have been a number of additional stories and allegations about the Home Secretary and the decision continues to be questioned.

Then there was a decision not to attend COP27 which appears to have been rolled back from but only when former Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he would be attending. The reasoning seemed sensible with Sunak wanting to keep a focus on the budgetary issues ahead of the statement in November. But this fails to see the wider implications of the PM role. He should not have to be at home going through the details and should be able to leave that to the Chancellor to do the work and keep him updated. The impression created is that the economics is all that matters which for an ex-Chancellor wanting to be PM is not the image you want.

The latest issue is in the media at the moment which is Sir Gavin Williamson’s appointment despite allegations of bullying circulating. The media state that Sunak was aware the day before Williamson was appointed as a cabinet minister. Complaints will be dealt with as an internal matter but the damage to Sunak has already happened.

What appears to link these different elements is a lack of wider consideration of the issues before making a decision, and then having a plan to deal with the consequences of that decision. It is something that I talk about in my new book Everyday Communication Strategies. Effective decision making is critical to managing issues and incidents and yet it is often overlooked. If there was a consideration of the aftermath of the decisions made it may not have taken into account, the cumulative impact of these decisions is damaging.

This is where the communication professional can add so much. They can help to reflect back the views that a situation, decision or action will create. They can help to plan the way forward to limit the reputational damage. They can provide counsel to those at the top of any organisation. The challenge for the new Prime Minister is that these stories are impacting on what people think of him. They are going against what he said he was bringing to the role and when actions and words don’t match it will impact on trust and confidence. Action is needed now to limit the impact and to show what he really wants to be known for.

*Everyday Communication Strategies was published on 3 November by Kogan Page.

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Shrewd move or more of the same?

The appointment of yet another national journalist to a senior communication role in Government has sparked a lot of discussion. For anyone that has missed the news it is that the latest Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has put Head of UK News for ITV, Amber de Botton as his new communication chief. It is a well-worn path from national news outlet to 10 Downing Street but is it a good move?

Amber de Botton was credited as being part of the downfall of Allegra Stratton and Boris Johnson leading the ‘partygate’ reporting. She has received a lot of praise and support for her work and her news pedigree is clear with time at Sky News. The challenge is that effective communication is about much more than just media management.

Part of the frustration that was clear among the PR community was the view that journalists can make a straight leap into the most senior communication roles. It presents an ‘old’ view of the profession as one where news sense is the only important skill. Anyone involved in PR and communication knows the world is much more complicated and effective communication is a difficult balancing act of many things.

I started my working life as a journalist, and it does provide some useful skills for communication and PR work, but I made the move into PR at a junior level which gave me the opportunity to learn on the job about all the other elements. If I had made the move into a senior post, I know it would have left me with some critical gaps in my knowledge and experience.

One of the problems with the outpouring of frustration about the appointments of journalists to senior Government jobs is that it has an impact on those who move from journalism into PR. I know some PRs that don’t want people to know about their background in the media. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that it will hold them back and that they have to fight hard to be seen as an effective PR officer.

Reporters who move into PR and set about learning and developing their skills should not be afraid to talk about their past, to see the skills it has given them and to help others who may need to hone up their news sense.

Time will tell whether this latest Government appointment of a former journalist is a good move and is right for modern communication. My expectation is that we will see more of the same, a huge focus on the national media at the expense of local media and wider communication. But perhaps all that is left to the experts that work in other Government communication roles.

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Doing it right

When life is good, and things are going well it is easy to do the right things. At that point everything you do is working and there are no challenging considerations or hard questions to tackle. It is when life gets hard, work is pressured, and situations are deteriorating that we need to keep a strong focus on our ethics.

I was re-reading my book Everyday Communication Strategies that comes out next week and I was surprised by how much it focuses on ethical approaches to issues management. It has always been important to me, and we need to keep this focus no more than ever. Political events from Partygate to the recent failings, not taking advice and a communication breakdown have all reinforced the needs not just for good communication but for ethical communication.

But few of us spent any time really thinking about our own ethics and values. What really matters to us? What would we do and more importantly what wouldn’t we do?

There are Codes both of Conduct and Ethics that if you are a member of an industry body you are expected to adhere to. When you face a difficult decision where do you turn? Do you look to those codes? Do you speak to a trusted colleague? For many the decision may be forced by something else whether it is pressure from within the business or from outside.

We all need to take some time to reflect and to become more self-aware. We need to know what our ‘line in the sand’ is that we will refuse to cross, and also what we will do if we are being pushed over that line. It is in those dark and difficult moments that our ethics should shine a light and show us the way forward.

Rather than being an abstract concept, ethics needs to be part of our daily lives. It is in what we do, the words we use, the decisions we make and the biases that we carry. It is an issue for today and tomorrow not something to wait until we face a challenge.

*If you are interested Everyday Communication Strategies is published by Kogan Page on 3 November with USA and Canada publication on 23 November.

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When sorry is not enough

Apologising is an important issue for anyone involved in PR and particularly in dealing with both issues and crises. I will often talk about the importance of saying sorry when problems occur and doing it as quickly as possible to have maximum impact. But 2022 seems to be the year when saying sorry was given a bad name.

It is interesting to dissect the Liz Truss apology and why it has had no impact on the public ratings according to the latest polls.

Earlier this year we had the spectacle of the Boris Johnson ‘sorry, not sorry’ when he finally had to account for his lockdown rule breaking and associated behaviour. It had no sincerity and no impact on what followed. In the past few days, we have witnessed his successor Liz Truss saying sorry a number of times saying that she had made mistakes in the handling of the economy since she took up the post.

First, the apology is only credible if the events were unforeseen and had not been anticipated or predicted. This was not the case for the financial situation and the mini budget as there were a number of key institutions and people who had stated the likely impact of the action being planned. They were not listening to the experts and the advice that was given.

Second, to have any impact the apology needed to happen immediately that the financial impact of the decisions made was obvious. Delaying the response has watered down the potency of the apology. It becomes an apology as a strategy to minimise the difficult situation rather than a human response to circumstances.

Third, the body language and the approach need to show contrition and a recognition that you understand what happened and why it happened. You need to show it is about more than just words and this has not been in evidence during the past few days .

Fourth, if you are admitting to getting things wrong and making mistakes you need to be able to quickly demonstrate that this is a blip and that you can have a positive impact. Liz Truss has left others to show the positive steps being taken both with Penny Mordaunt answering questions on Monday, and the Chancellor providing the statements to the public and Parliament.

Finally, you have to learn from your mistakes and from whatever you are apologising for. What did you realise you did? What will you do differently? How will you change and adapt? Again, this is sadly lacking from the commentary that exists. There is still talk around taking the same steps but at a slower pace.

Heartfelt apologies are what really matter when there is a problem, and a crisis develops. It has to be rooted in recognition of failings and a desire to change. Saying sorry without a plan of action that follows it and without communication that supports it will never be enough.

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Taking a different direction

When I wrote my first book it was a moment to tick off one of my bucket list things and I was in my own world of excitement. It was only the realisation that other people would possibly read it that made me panic and become worried about what they may think. It is just three weeks until my second book Everyday Communication Strategies is published, and the feeling is very different.

I am more nervous than with the first book. Will it live up to the first book? Will people want to read it? Is it going to be able to help people? When people say they have found my writing useful, that it has helped them at work or it has made them think about what they do, it makes me feel the time and effort was all worthwhile.

This book is a prequel because it is about effective issues management and trying to get ahead of problems, we all face at work. It felt that while crisis communication is an essential skill for all communicators so is helping businesses avoid damage. There are always going to be those moments when things happen that we could not have foreseen or where we are unexpectedly dragged into a situation. But for most situations businesses are going to face there is a point where they can act to prevent any escalation.

It is not only communications that should steer the business in a different direction, but I feel it has a huge part to play. Communication is about reputation and those are the problems that can be spotted early through media and social media monitoring, and where effective communication can have an impact. Being able to highlight a developing situation, provide strategic advice and take action when required is what communicators need to be focused on.

Issues management has never been a more important skill. The chaos and uncertainty that exists in the world will put additional pressures on communicators who have to help their customers, employees and others understand the business they are working with. Taking stock of the world and what is happening is critical for those issues that happen every day.

I hope that hard pressed communicators who are facing incredibly pressure will find something to help them within the book.

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If you have been affected….

How many times do we now here ‘if you have been affected by anything in this programme go to..’? It is something that we hear many, many times and I know it is there for good reasons. The aim was to try and give people somewhere to go if they watch something and feel their emotions are triggered. But this is now just the wallpaper that we don’t recognise anymore.

Yesterday was World Mental Health Day and there was a lot of discussion about the importance of mental wellbeing and resilience. There were stories about how people had struggled at work and shocking statistics about how many people are dealing with mental health challenges. I have been very open about my own challenges. They started when I worked for the police and was absorbing a lot of very difficult issues without realising the impact it was having on me. Slowly chipping away about my mental wellbeing.

In the past six months I have suddenly come face-to-face with the huge mental challenge of grief. Grieving is like no other emotion I have experienced before. I have realised that I am not only dealing with the huge losses that have happened, but I am realising that my life, my attitudes to things and my thoughts of the future are also changing. It is huge and life changing.

I know there are many people dealing with their own grief and difficult situations. More people are in this space than most of us realise. We are still trying to understand the real impact on Covid-19 on all our mental wellbeing. These are daily battles and not just something that can be for an annual awareness day.

Last night I sat and wondered what my purpose in life was? How would I be able to move forward without my Mum? How can I fill the many hours I have now I no longer have my horse? And ultimately who am I now after these six months of traumatic experiences? I don’t yet have any answers. I do know that those ‘have you been affected’ announcements feel a bit hollow when you are in tears worrying about how you can carry on. We need to be much more proactive about how we approach these things, and perhaps now it needs to go beyond a tick box that links to support being put in place.

If you have been affected by anything in this blog, please reach out and let me know. Talking is one of the best ways of making sense of traumatic experiences. And don’t wait to be affected seek out some help and support now.

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Tough at the top? Get better at comms

Running the country appears to be no easy thing if you are looking at the current state of politics and the Prime Minister. It also seems to be the case if anyone has been watching the Channel 4 programme Make Me Prime Minister which is on Tuesday nights. Just two weeks in and there has been a lack of policies, lots of poor publicity stunts and some very dubious media handling.

It is the roll of effective communication that has been the most obvious element of the tasks those taking part have been involved in. There is the usual view that doing PR and media management is an easy task, which judging from the attempts made so far it absolutely is not. Arguments with journalists, off the cuff remarks and rambling discussions have all happened and we are only two episodes in.

As a professional communicator, you can expect that I would focus on the importance of the role it plays in life and I hope that others may be seeing the importance of effective communication. This is not about ‘spin’ or manipulation but about making sure people understand the details of what is being talked about. It is explaining what it means, what they need to do and what impact things will have, as well as the all-important why.

The recent survey from the PRCA shows that CEOs are starting to realise that communication is not just about tactical delivery but about strategic advice. In the post-pandemic world of chaos effective communication is a way to try and help people make sense of what is happening around them. It is a way that businesses keep in touch with the mood around them and can help support in finding new ways of working.

If I was ever thinking about going into politics this programme and the state of what is happening in the UK government and around the world would make me think again. I am sure others may feel the same which is a shame as it is clear a new style of politics and political leader is what is needed.

If you haven’t seen the programme, check it out or look for the edition next Tuesday when they are going to be faced with a crisis to manage. Having worked in the past on crisis simulations and in major emergencies I feel I know the way this will go. They will over-react, make poor judgements and potentially commit scare resources too soon. During a crisis decisions need to be made based on what is going to bring the best outcome for people not for the individual making the decision. Given the nature of the programme this will not happen as those taking part are fighting for their survival in the process.

I know I will sit and be shouting at the TV while I watch next week’s episode.

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