On the eve of a reputational challenge

It looks set to be another difficult week for policing after reading the newspaper reports about the impending publication of the Casey review into the Metropolitan Police. In this world of good v bad managing the communication around this is going to be very challenging but will be important for the future of the whole of policing not just the Met.

There have already been Government ministers reported saying that the vast majority of officers are hardworking and focused on doing a good job. This adds to the ongoing commentary about rooting out ‘bad apples’. While I don’t disagree with the sentiment of this it will be of little comfort set against a public that are growingly losing confidence in experts and institutions.

When I am talking about crises I always stress that perceptions are as crucial to your response and communication as that is actually happening. Don’t ignore the views that exist around you when considering what to say. I have been reading some articles about not saying anything and using that as your response. This is a very difficult one to consider.

The bottom line is that if you are Amazon or Facebook you have the option of saying nothing because no matter what people will still go back because of the convenience factor. Many will disconnect the delivery driver that brings your parcel with the giant corporation. But if you are a public sector organisation or a smaller business in a competitive market place your position is more precarious. If your customers become so disconnected from you the business may be pushed out or leaders will be forced out.

When a reputational crisis is happening, or is about to happen, you need to really consider what you are doing, and then saying, being fully aware of what it looks like from those outside of the business. So, what of the Met’s position? The key is for it to be more than words, and it has to be action that people can see. There is little to be gained from saying ‘we are taking action’ if people can’t understand what that really is. You can see how complex messaging can lead to more problems if you look at the response to the recent train derailment in Ohio, USA.

Communicators should be prevented from writing ‘we are, have, or are about to learn the lessons’. In the case of those with ongoing reputational issues there is little to be gained from saying ‘these are a few bad apples’. The situation needs to be recognised for what it actually is and then be followed up by those tangible and visible actions. The internal communication will be even more complex and nuanced. Attempting cultural change under the spotlight of the media, politicians and others needs some strength, humility and drive to transform, as well as having the right resources in place to deliver the communication. It should not be done on a shoestring or added on to the rest of the day job.

One of the biggest challenges in this situation will be ensuring that leaders are listening to their communication advisors, to the public, and to their staff. Policing can be a very insular organisation with people working in it for many years. Really listening has to be the foundation to making the change that is needed.

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It started with a tweet

There has been a huge amount of discussion about the row between the BBC and Gary Lineker, so I have been watching and considering what we can unpick from this situation. The subject of the discussion is extremely sensitive and people have strong views both for and against the Government’s proposed policy. I am not going to get into that discussion as there is still a lot that will be said about that in the days and weeks ahead. But what can we learn as PR and communication professionals?

The first thing is that this may be labelled as a ‘pr crisis’ but for me it is not. This is about a lack of understanding about policies and a personal decision to take a course of action. If we unpick it this was a problem before any communication of it took place. It is one of my big frustrations that we accept the label ‘pr crisis’ for situations where organisations and others have failed.

If we move past that I see three big issues for the BBC that remind us why we need to plan and prepare for the worst.

  1. This problem could have been foreseen. Gary Lineker has a history of tweets about his personal opinion of political and other situations. In 2018 it was about Brexit, and in 2022 it was about Tory Party donations, for which a complaint was upheld by the BBC. He also made comments at the start of the Qatar World Cup. So, if these issues had already occurred then there was an opportunity to get ahead of any future issue. This could have been reaching an agreement with Mr Lineker or working through what would happen if a future breach occurred. After every issue or crisis there has to be a moment of learning for every organisation.
  2. Social media policies are complex things and need very careful thought. Gone are the days of saying no employee is allowed to post about personal views or work. It is, and will be, happening all the time and organisations need to catch up with their employees, particularly those starting work who have spent their lives on social media. Silencing people reflects badly on organisations particularly in a world of conspiracy theories and distrust of authority. Instead, look at a sensible position that provides guidelines that allow some opportunity to speak and provide clear rationale for why the approach is taken.
  3. Any new policy or procedure introduced into an organisation needs to be stress tested. Consider what the worst situation may be and plan what you will do. Scenario planning is not just for situations and should be turned to any significant business changes. In this way the BBC could have reviewed how it would deal with a social media transgression before it played out in full view of the public.

The above are all reminders to every organisation that it needs to learn from past events, be prepared for reputational problems that may emerge, and to take a long hard look at how it manages social media. All businesses need to plan and prepare for reputational crises. The aftermath of the Gary Lineker disagreement must be understood by the BBC and I would urge them to take steps to avoid another problem like this in the future.

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Go your own way

The old saying ‘you don’t know what you have got till it’s gone’ has never felt more accurate than as I reflect on International Women’s Day. I have never been a fan of this day as I feel that it shouldn’t be necessary to promote women, to highlight what they do and to raise issues of concern. But in 2023 it feels we need it more than ever.

It is a time to reflect on the women that have helped to shape me and my life. Just a couple of weeks before Mother’s Day that has to be where we all start. Our Mums have such a profound impact on our lives and I have been incredibly blessed with the 51 years I shared with my Mum. It is still tinged with sadness when I talk about what she gave me as I know it can only be in my memories now. My Mum gave me the confidence to believe that I could achieve whatever I wanted to and that I was, and would be, as good as any man.

Would I have been able to spend more than two decades in policing, to write two books, to set up my own businesses without that support in my formative years? I doubt it. I always describe Mum as a force of nature, and so was her mother my Granny Taylor.

Granny T worked in service and after her own mother died very young had to take on huge responsibilities. She was always a soft and warm person to me but she had inner steel. I am lucky enough to have the start of the life story she was going to write, and it definitely needs to be shared publicly at some point. Her life was far from easy but she went through being her own person.

My Dad’s mum, Granny C, was a very different person but had the same strength. She faced debilitating illness in her more than 90 years but battled through even challenging the medical profession at times. In her younger years she went to finishing school and had an amazing poise and elegance throughout her life.

These three women have had a huge impact on my life, my attitude and my choices. I wish I could spend some more time with them but I am always able to connect through my memories. There are a whole range of other women who have had an impact on me from my primary school teacher Mrs Peacon who encouraged my writing through to so many police women who I have worked with. Strong, resilient leaders even when they faced unbelievable pressure.

In the three years that I have been running my consultancy I have met so many women who are doing the same running their own business and weathering the ups and downs that brings. They have been a huge support for this fledgling business owner so thank you, and you will know who you are.

What all of these women demonstrated was that you need to be true to yourself and plough your own furrow in life.

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Three years later…

Three years ago I would never have expected that I would be asked to write a second edition of my book Crisis Communication Strategies. At that point I was just pleased that I had managed to write my first book and was wondering how publication would happen as the pandemic started to emerge. But on Friday 3 March the revised edition is published and has much changed?

It may feel like just a few years have gone by but these have been more uncertain and turbulent times than at any point for many years. There have been many extreme weather situations, the terrible earthquake in Turkey and Syria, war in Europe, as well as a cost of living squeeze in many countries. All this has put how we communicate and respond in a crisis under the spotlight.

So, what is different? We need to consider how to communicate without access to the latest technology and with no access to electricity. I was struck by what Sergii Bidenko said in a recent 10 minutes with interview about his experiences of trying to work in Ukraine in the past year. The importance of back up systems, and using ‘old-fashioned’ methods of communication is evident. At the same time as we are learning what artificial intelligence can bring to communication in a crisis, we also have to be prepared to have nothing at our fingertips.

We have seen the dramatic impact that crises have and how they further disadvantage those who are already struggling. The cost of living situation now, and the pandemic recently, have shown that there is a disproportionate impact on those who already have the least. It really matters for us as communicators to recognise this, to consider how we communicate and importantly what we say. Telling people that they have to isolate from others in the home, which was stated during the pandemic, is fine if you have a home large enough to do that. And I could say more about telling people to eat turnips rather than salad, as a UK government minister did.

More recently the role of the Tik Tok influencer and the media in dealing with emergencies have been highlighted as issues for the crisis communicator. A crisis communication plan that doesn’t have social media and managing misinformation and disinformation outlined within it is not a complete plan. And communication teams have to be maintaining relationships with journalists and media organisations to help when a crisis does happen.

A lot has changed since before the Covid-19 pandemic and what matters is that we ensure we are keeping up to date so that we are ready for that moment when a crisis happens.

*Thanks to everyone who has helped me in the development of the second edition of Crisis Communication Strategies particularly my publishers Kogan Page.

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More than words

In recent months there has been more conversation, discussion and public commentary on the menopause. It is something that half the population experience at some point in their lives and is just a part of life for women. I have to admit that beyond hot flushes, sleepless nights and mood swings I didn’t know much more. But as I am on about day four of a series menopausal phase I thought I would try and share what it actually means.

Someone close once said to be ‘why do I need to know about your menopause?’ and really if you are a woman it may help to realise you are not alone, or to open your eyes to what to prepare for, and if you are a man please look at how you can help.

The worst thing I have experienced is catastrophising and a feeling that everything is going wrong. It can be the best moment and I would still have a feeling of inner dread that something bad is around the corner. There is no way to rationalise it and I just have to recognise it and try to push it to the back of my mind. At its worse this led me at the weekend to dash my elderly rabbit to the vets. The bottom line is he is old and there was nothing else to add. Alongside this is wider feelings of anxiety. I am going to London later this week and have found myself writing a list about what I need to take. Before the menopause I would travel abroad on my own without ever worrying but now I find anxiety creeping up on me.

My moods are extremely variable. In one day last week I went from anger, frustration through to sadness and despair. Anyone who had spoken to me would not have known because I wore a mask of normality on my calls and in conversations. Of course, all this is enhanced with aches and pains. Not just those you get when you are over 50 but I wake up and feel exhaustion and aches across my whole body.

I have been to the doctors but HRT is not an option due to my family history and the risks associated with it. I do have some tablets to help ease migraines which is another little gift that the menopause has given to me. They are working well provided I take them as soon as I realise a migraine is on the way.

Why am I telling you all this? It isn’t for sympathy. What I want to see is more action to help women, and that is more than HRT. There needs to be access to counselling and support groups, to information about how to manage some of the issues, and to immediate help when people feel at crisis point. While there has been more talk about menopause it is just words and what the women of the world need now is more than words.

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A small step and a big impact

We are all really busy people with daily struggles, with pressure from work, with the need to make ends meet and trying to manage a whole range of issues. It can often mean we rush around without taking a moment to stop and refocus. As we head into the weekend, it is good to remember what is really important to you.

The news is full of heart-breaking stories, sadness and moments of tragedy in people’s lives. It may be that I have just become more attune to the suffering but it really does feel that there is a lot of trauma in the world. If you were not aware, today is Random Acts of Kindness Day. It may feel a bit of a drop in the ocean to focus on being kind in this difficult world.

But when I am training about how to manage a crisis I always encourage people to get the plans in place so that they have time to ‘sweat the small stuff’. It is those little kindnesses, thoughtful gestures and moments of support that will have a huge impact on people who are at the worst moment in their lives. I have seen it first hand. In recent months I have also experienced it. A kind word, a short DM on social media, a quick phone call can make all the difference.

I was a child brought up in the 1980s where my teenage years were at a time when Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister and was encouraging the ‘greed is good’ approach. It was a time when people were encouraged to get more and more without ever thinking about other people. It is not a time I want to go back to. Those with loads of money were wafting it around and in front of those who didn’t. And while that has always been the case, it seemed to get a whole lot worse during that decade.

So, as you are going through the day take a moment to stop and consider the impact that you are having on others. What mark are you leaving on today? Can you be a little bit kinder to those around you or who you meet? Those small steps can go a long way and have a big impact.

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Keep the conversation going

It has become clear to me in the past 12 months that I have to look after myself both mentally and physically. There have been a lot of reminders of the fragility of life that have taken their toll on my mental wellbeing. So as people post about Time To Talk day, I am reflecting on how I have managed to navigate through the intense moments I have experienced.

My life has changed radically since the sudden death of my Mum and the difficult decision to say goodbye to my horse after 20 years together. Last year was a series of losses that made me reconsider where I was, what I was doing, and what matters to me. I still have many dark and difficult days, the moments when I want to close the curtains and just curl up on my own. But there are many more when I wake up ready to take on the day.

Having a strong network of friends that I can talk to, and who also check in to see how I am doing, has made a huge difference. They have been there to pick me up, to just listen, and never to judge me or tell me what to do. I have never realised how lucky I am to have that until this difficult year. But I have also made use of other services provided by Mind and others. The volunteers on the chat facilities have been there when I have felt unable to talk to anyone else.

But I have also developed a self-care regime. I am starting to recognise those dark moods as they lurk on the horizon and take steps to deal with them. This may be getting away from things, doing something I enjoy, carrying out some repetitive tasks, or to lift my mood journaling about what I am grateful for. It has taken me a few years to get to this point but the hard work has definitely made the difference.

We all have difficult moments in our lives. It is how we deal with them that matters. And avoiding catastrophising and worrying about things before they happen is something I am still trying to get control over.

This Time to Talk day reflect on where your support comes from, who can you turn to, and who are you available to provide support to. And finally, thank you again to all those friends near and far for the help in the past year.

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Leaders, responsibility and a time to act

After days of headlines about his tax affairs Nadhim Zahawi was finally sacked from the UK Government. He had attempted to cling onto his role despite the growing criticism and in accepting the removal from the Cabinet still refused to apologise and made a parting shot at the media. It has been another example of poor handling of a reputational crisis with a slow and lacklustre response.

Despite our best efforts to avoid crises happening they will still occur. What matters is how we deal with them. Speed of reaction remains a key element to any response which is why I continually advise people to prepare, plan and have communication processes that allow swift action. Waiting for days to react creates further damage to organisations.

In some situations the events are so horrific that the action that should be taken is clear. In America, the Memphis police unit where the five officers who beat Tyre Nichols worked has been disbanded. The video of that incident was so shocking and it is understandable that is sparked the protests that have been seen. This action should be the starting point for further significant reform to start on a long road to recover the lost public trust.

The leadership of all organisations should consider what they would do in these difficult circumstances. If they get caught up in a crisis will they stay and sort it out or will they make way for someone else in a bid to maintain confidence? If they have an employee that commits a crime or behaves dishonestly how will they react? Will they follow due process or will they act quickly? And in all these circumstances what will they be saying to staff?

All too often the work that is done on crisis management focuses on the systems and processes rather than the ethical dilemmas. The frameworks are important but cannot give you an answer on the ethical dilemmas that you will face.

We now need crisis management and communication that is developed within organisations to include scenario planning for these moral challenges. Leaders need to be decisive in their action as well as to show the personal integrity that will help manage the crisis. It is a non-negotiable as it comes with the job description, the responsibility and the role as a leader.

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The long road ahead

It is no surprise that the front pages today are filled with the horrific details of the Metropolitan Police officer who pleaded guilty to rape and sexual offences yesterday. The officer was expected to be dismissed this morning, which sounds late given what has happened but is part of a procedure that has to be followed. This is the latest in a series of crises to hit policing, and in particular the Metropolitan Police. So what happens next and what about confidence in the police service?

After more than twenty years working in policing when I see these headlines I do spare a thought for the many thousands of hard working police officers who are doing their best, putting themselves at risk, and are battling to provide a service despite budgetary pressures. But that said, there is clearly much that needs to be done both in the way policing operates and how it communicates with people.

The pandemic increased one of the problems that policing was experiencing. The saying was always ‘the police are the public and the public are the police’, but during lockdown the distance between the two started to grow. As with many institutions the restrictions and roles that were required during the pandemic impacted on how people interact with them. The ways of working that had to be put in place have become the norm. People have even fewer opportunities to interact with the police and this is not helpful when trying to overcome the impact of stories of misconduct and criminality in the ranks.

More than a decade ago I remember having conversations about the problems of officers abusing the power that they had. It is disappointing that many years on and despite work that was put in place this is still a problem. There is no easy answer but it has to start with the recruitment. Who is recruited to the police and how the process works to identify anyone of concern is the starting point.

Police forces also need to open themselves up to scrutiny. They need to show what they are doing, allow people behind the scenes and take things beyond the documentaries and dramas that people refer to. Above all words need to be accompanied by action. And this has to be action that people see happening. It is a huge challenge as those at the top have to ensure they have the support of officers and staff but also must ensure this does not turn into protecting the status quo. Chief Constables have a fixed time in office and this doesn’t help ensure the long term progress in the way organisations operate. So perhaps it is time to review the leadership and the way it operates.

It is a difficult road ahead but the police service has to take action and ensure this is done in an open and transparent way to start rebuilding public confidence.

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Seeing through the claim of transparency

There has been an interesting series of articles on Sky News looking at PMs, Parliament, how money is received and from who. If you haven’t seen it I would take a look as it is an interesting example of how data is being used and developed. There is an associated spreadsheet that will tell you the money your MP has received and who it came from.

This move is all about transparency and has been talked about as a major step forward. But what has become obvious is that the transparency is perhaps more opaque than it first appears. The information is just a figure and a name. Sky reporters tried to track back to identify the donations and the business they came from but was frustrated on many levels.

In crisis communication I talk a lot about the need for transparency but this has made me wonder whether as comms professionals and leaders we have lost sight of what it really means. In the case above the real transparency would be to say this figure came from this organisation for this specific reason. When I worked in the police the gifts and hospitalities register required a lot of information as well as the times the gift had been turned down.

I remember declaring a tin of biscuits that the local newspaper had sent at Christmas. Did anyone really want to know? I am not sure. But that was a level of transparency that would have given people all those elements of who, what, where, when and why. The approach would have been more ground breaking by Parliament and MPs then just a figure with no clarification.

What started as an exercise in transparency can quickly become an issue that needs to be managed. Many people will want to know more, and will have questions of their local MPs. What may be genuine relationships with a clear issue and approach could start to look more sinister. More information would have quickly identified those issues that were seen as questionable. It is important to remember that there is nothing illegal that has been identified in the figures according to Sky. The issues are more about ethical behaviour and morality.

This same problem of transparency is something that we may see with lots of documents that get produced on financial matters, diversity and equality, recruitment and retention. Are we playing into the hands of conspiracy theorists and critics by just failing to add some context?

It may be time for communication professionals to stand up and question the way information is published, what is not included, and to show what real transparency looks like.

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