Knowledge is not power

Information has a currency within organisations and businesses. It is often a challenge to communicators to break through this area of control if they are going to be effective. We have all seen when those at the top of an organisation hold onto the details that they have refusing or being unwilling to involve others. This may be acceptable some times but when you are dealing with a crisis it is a damaging position.

In responding to a crisis you need to have as much information about the situation as possible but more than that you need to be sharing it. The team brought together to develop the response need to have all the facts at the current time in front of them. Only when that happens can you be effective in decision making. Crises emerge and then develop so being really open with the information throughout is essential.

I have spent many years working in policing where some details could not be shared but these occasions should be few and far between. Many times I would push and ask not what could we say but why couldn’t we release the information. Often there is an overly cautious mood that overtakes when pressure appears. It feels easier to say nothing or little than to have to have a conversation. This is why too many times the crisis response never moves out of broadcasting and directive communication.

Like many I will be interested to see how the UK Government narrative develops today. This is an incredibly complex and challenging time coming out of the latest lockdown needs more communication and conversation than less. The announcements today need to start a conversation with people so they understand the proposals, can see how they contribute to it and are able to make suggestions about the way forward. It is not a straightforward announcement. This is why in training I will explain that the first moments of a crisis are the easiest for communication because you are able to broadcast and keep information to just what is known that may be brief. It is the time after that when things become more complicated.

What is clear is that knowledge is not power. It is a commodity that has to be shared throughout the length of a crisis. Shared not just with the trusted advisors who are developing the response but to the public who have suffered because of events. Trust and confidence can be built when there is an openness, a conversation and an understanding of the facts of the situation. In this challenging time of living with a pandemic knowledge has never been more important to us all.

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Here we go again

Another Sunday and another set of Sunday newspapers that are talking about possible next steps in the UK government’s pandemic plan. There is no clarity on what is fact and what is speculation. Whether it has been deliberately leaked to gauge public opinion, I will let others debate. What is concerning me more is the discussion of dates in the future.

If we are to believe some of the articles today we will be eating picnics after 8 March, will be going to the pub by Easter and will have the nine outlined categories of people vaccinated by May. After reporters have discussed these dates we are hearing in their next breath about the more than 600 people that died of Covid-19 in the past 24 hours. Set this in the context of nearing the first anniversary of the initial lockdown and it raises some alarm bells.

People have been struggling with lockdown part three and there is a need to give them some form of hope for the future. We have seen this before. Comments still ring in my ears about the pandemic being over by Christmas, that we have beaten it, and that we should eat out to boost the economy. All of these have been shown to be wrong and for me have added to the sense of frustration with the situation. No-one knows exactly how this will play out. We can plan, prepare, theorise and postulate but we cannot provide certainty. Politicians would do well to remember this.

In a crisis the communication is not the same as during political campaigning. There is no room for over-promising, filling in the gaps with assumptions, and false hopes. People need honesty, clarity and to be part of an ongoing conversation. It is critical for those in charge to be listening and discussing rather than just dictating. Trust and confidence in the response are never going to exist in a world of broken promises.

We now clearly have two crises taking place. The first is the Covid-19 pandemic and the second a crisis of confidence in the UK government’s response. Those involved in communication around the situation need to understand what is happening and build a response that takes it into account. There is no simple messaging and I don’t think after the first couple of months there ever was.

Let us start to have an honest conversation about the future, about what we know and what we don’t know. Let us be clear about the next steps without putting uncertain dates next to the plan. And let us move forward together to get through this crisis.

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Crisis, disaster, incident….what is it?

What is in a name? Well quite a lot really particularly when we are trying to develop a shared understanding of things. It is not as simple as it sounds to navigate the way through what is a crisis, what makes a critical incident and what we can call an emergency.

When I am talking to businesses and organisations it is essential to be able to understand how they view the situation. Their personal experiences will have shaped what they think and the threshold they have for risk. That is where it has to start. If we are going to be able to deal with crisis effectively we need to be talking about risks, risk management and risk mitigation.

Don’t get me wrong. Some years ago if you had asked me about risk registers, business continuity plans and scenario planning I would probably have rolled my eyes. These things were all required but not really that interesting when there was more creative communication work to do. But they are essential in these uncertain times if we are ever going to be able to get to do that creative work we love.

Communication teams need to have a discussion about the risks they face and to come to an agreement about what constitutes a risk for them. It may be that certain aspects of the business highlight greater risks, or that the approach to communication itself has risks attached. We need to see both, understand both and then make plans for both.

With my policing background there was a very clear explanation of what a crisis would be, what constituted a critical incident and that helped to ensure a clear understanding across teams. We need to have that discussion with the top team to develop our own definitions that are shared.

Moving on from the pandemic is going to bring new challenges. Meeting them will mean an even greater focus on having those structures and processes in place from risk to business continuity and crisis management. We need to establish the boundaries and how our businesses and organisations are going to be able to weather the storms of uncertainties that lie ahead.

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Compare and contrast

When I set up my business almost a year ago a wise woman told me to avoid comparing what I was doing with anyone else. It is something I have been reminded about a lot. It isn’t just looking at what others are doing in business. We can all benefit from avoiding comparing our lives with those we see playing out on social media.

How many of us can say that we haven’t looked at Facebook or Instagram posts and thought ‘they are having a much better lockdown than me’? Carefully selected photographs and posts present a sleek image of happy people with happy lives eating beautiful food and looking continually attractive. Many years ago the people we would see were those in glossy magazines. It affected us but it really didn’t hit home in the same way as watching those who we know.

We know underneath it all that we are all struggling to deal with the impact of the pandemic. Nobody I have met yet has a perfect life. They are all trying to make the best of the situations that they face. They all have the same ups and downs that we all have. What we see is just a small part of their lives. The bit they are happy to show.

It is the same in business. I have had some interesting conversations about the images that those running businesses present. We know that it is not always as it may first appear. So what do I, and others, need to do about it?

Remember that ploughing your own furrow is why you went into business. Doing your own thing is a key part of what you do. Being you will be what attracts people to you. It is your life, skills and experience that they look to. If you are just doing what everybody else does then how will you get noticed?

Stop reading social media posts if you are having a difficult day. Recognise that looking through posts will potentially make things feel worse. Give yourself a day off and regain your inner strength before going back.

Take stock of all the positives that you are doing with your business. In the same way we can look at what we are grateful for in our lives we can do the same with our business. I keep a jar where I post in it little wins every time they happen. Whenever I feel I need a boost I can open the jar and pick out a piece of paper to read about something I have achieved.

One sure way to help me get through the crisis of confidence is to talk to others. Since I went out on my own and set up my business I have been lucky to have a great support network of people always there to give me a kind word or a bit of a kick when I need it. It was Advita Patel who gave me the words of wisdom about avoiding comparing what I was doing with others. There are many people who have been so generous with their time, support and wisdom.

As you head into the new week remember these are difficult and challenging times for everyone. The best way through it is to look after yourself and do things your way.

*If you are in need of some advice about building resilience I am running a free webinar with expert Emma Ewing on 2 March 2021 at 12noon. Details are here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/139197251727

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What next for crisis communication?

People often think of crisis communication as a very static thing. It is the thing that PR and comms professionals don’t want to have to do but realise they have to. There are some key principles but after all it is just about good and effective communication, isn’t it?

I have felt the need to challenge thinking on crisis communication, including my own. People can often forget the key elements of communication when they are dealing with a crisis. They may forget to target the communication, to consider engagement and undertake evaluation. If you read this blog regularly then you will know I am passionate about crisis communication and what it can do to help people. This is why I have launched another series of #crisischat webinars.

The first is looking at the role behaviour change can have in crisis communication and the crisis response. I am very honoured to have the amazing Shayoni Lynn, of Lynn PR, on the session sharing her expertise and putting it into the crisis world. We have seen with Covid-19 how important it is to not just share messages, but gain the confidence which means that people will listen and change what they do.

I saw a previous webinar that Shayoni did and it got me thinking about how crisis communication can move away from being purely a quick response tool. It made me think there had to be more that could be done, particularly with such long running crises as the one we are living through. There are many questions I want to ask Shayoni and I will be hoping those who attend will have many of their own to ask.

The next two webinars in early March will also pick up on current challenges to look at what can be done. They will focus on building resilience when you are in the middle of a crisis. It is easy to talk about what you can do to boost your resilience when you have the luxury of time and space but how can you do it when you are in a crisis? The final one of the trio will be looking at what artificial intelligence can do to help with the crisis communication response and what issues could we face in the future.

We all need to continue to develop whether we are PR officers, internal communicators or crisis communicators. I will be using these sessions to challenge my thinking and consider what the future may hold for the crisis response.

If you would like to attend the first webinar register here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/can-communication-really-change-behaviour-in-a-crisis-tickets-139195791359

Watch for the dates and details for the future sessions. All webinars are free and I am grateful for the support of those taking part.

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Learning for the future: our communication duty

An unbelievable milestone was reached this week when the number of Covid-19 related deaths rose above 100,000. Back in March 2020 no-one would have expected that we would get to this point. It is a sobering thought how many people will be grieving the loss of a loved one. They are also having to try and grieve in a different way, often alone or with limited contact with others.

The long term impact of Covid-19 is becoming clear. Many people are talking now about the mental health crisis that is going to be with us for many years as is the economic crisis. There is a lot of work still to do and we all can play a part in helping people get through.

Reviewing, debriefing and learning from what has happened and from the response is one of the most critical things going forward. Once the impact is starting to wane we may want to move on and not have to think back to what we have lived through. But making sure we have captured the learning and are actively using it to improve what we do is essential to successful long term recovery.

Many will have missed a report that came out recently from Nottingham Trent University and the C19 National Foresight Group. The report called Managing the First 230 days considered the findings of three interim operational reviews, and has some key points for local resilience forums, the responders and to communicators. I was struck by one quote:

“Politics have become far to present in the management of this emergency at every layer and we are yet to be convinced that it has helped at either a local or national level.”

There was a query about the lack of strategy and of shared planning and the impact that this may have on trust and developing effective communication. Having the right plans in place that have been tested and shared with key agencies, employees and hopefully the public is critical to being prepared.

I have written before about the challenge of the complex messaging that the pandemic has required but that has been absent. Dates when things will change have come and gone, messages have given false hope, and there has been a reliance on broadcasting messages alone. Being realistic and sticking to the facts that are know at the time are key principles of crisis communication. A key recommendation for any crisis communication whether short term or over an extended period of time is made:

“We also recommend that communications sharing realistic view of the immediate, mid and longer-term future are used.”

Other recommendations including havina clear communication strategy, more transparency which will help to build trust, to focus on improving communication between agencies. Alongside this is a recognition that the wellbeing of responders needs to be factored in to the planned response. I would always go further than this and say that wellbeing has to be a consideration for all who are affected by a crisis.

These are difficult and challenging times for us all. As communicators we have a frontline role in crisis response and the responsibility is a heavy weight to carry. However, it also gives us the ability to make changes that mean the significant impact of a crisis on people may be lessened in the future. There is so much learning from what we are going through we have a duty to make sure we capture it.

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A longing for a messaging rethink

Saturday night in January 2021. Not at all like many Saturday nights I have had in my life. No going to the pub, no meal at a nice restaurant, and no getting dressed up. This is becoming the normal way of life. Like almost everyone I speak to at the moment, I am finding things hard.

It feels as though those leading the pandemic response and the media need to recognise this and take it into account with everything they do. There is a responsibility to be part of the solution in a way that is often not seen.

None of us have lived through a pandemic like this before. We all as communicators need to be listening and ensuring what we learn is fed back to the decision makers. They have to understand the world they are working in and making decisions in. It will impact on how successful they are.

I am longing for a change in the prevailing narrative. Not to deny the terrible situation we face or to stop reminding people what they need to do, but now is the time for more. That ‘more’ is to try and find a way to help people through when they are struggling. It is more than saying wait for the vaccine, it needs to be much more.

It is a terrible fact that when people get down and hope disappears they may take drastic action. A huge amount of support is in place and there are amazing networks of help. But if everyone who is struggling sought help the support would be overwhelmed. This situation is taking its toll on the mental health of all of us.

Now is the time for both leaders and the media to start factoring this in to what they do. They need to recognise the impact of their words and need to take action to help people through. We can all do our bit to help each other through when times get tough.

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Singing the blues

Today is supposed to be ‘blue Monday’. I can’t help thinking it is another marketing persons idea perhaps to find a way to sell things. Maybe or maybe not.

It is an opportunity to put the spotlight on mental health and to encourage people to think about this very important subject. More than that I would want it to be a time to focus on the good things we have. It may sound a bit trite but it really does help when you are feeling down. Just try to find a handful of things that you can be grateful for each day. For me I write them down as somehow it makes it feel more real.

I have also found rationing my news watching has also helped. Sky news is no longer constantly on in the background and I let myself watch in the morning, lunchtime and teatime unless there is any reason to watch at another time. It isn’t easy for someone who has spent a lifetime watching the news minute by minute but these are difficult times and require drastic measures.

Almost everyone I have talked to since the start of 2021 is finding things difficult, challenging and more problematic than throughout 2020. Lockdown 3 (for most people) is feeling much tougher. I have seen a lot written about why this is but to be honest I am not bothered why it is I am more concerned with what I, and others, can do about it. How can we turn things around?

I have written about good mental health a few times both before Christmas and during the start of this year. There are many things you can do and it is important to find what works for you. Knowing what works will also help when you need to build your resilience.

One thing that we need to remember on ‘blue Monday’ is that there are a lot of support groups out there, people doing good work to help, and ways to get some assistance if you reach out. That is my one thing I would ask you to take away. If you are struggling you don’t need to do it alone. Make some time for yourself between the home schooling, zoom calls and everything else that is packed in to each day.

My ‘Blue Monday’ was made much brighter with talking to some great clients, focusing on some interesting work this week, and having time with other freelancers on the Monday chat. All of this was what I needed to start the week off the right way. What worked for you today? Let me know your tips for escaping the blues.

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A crisis of confidence

Why is it that many exceptional PR professionals and leaders have a lack of confidence in what they can do? Today, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) publishes a skills guide looking at making the move from communicator to CEO. A thread running through the information gathered was that we question our position, ability and often don’t step outside of a rigid comms role.

It is something that we have talked about within the industry for some years but are we now facing a crisis of confidence?

2020 and the first days of 2021 have been extremely challenging for everyone, and especially the PR and communication professionals who have been thrust into dealing with a crisis, supporting struggling business, trying to keep people safe and save lives, and for many self-employed put food on the table. This pressure could very easily take its toll so that we second guess ourselves, and question our role in the world. Alongside that for many there is the imposter syndrome as well to battle with.

I feel we are at a crossroads for the PR world. Down one path will be the loss of jobs, the loss of position within businesses, and an introspection that means we lose touch with the wider world. Down the other is the opportunity to build from the amazing work that has been taking place, taking up the seat in the boardroom, operating strategically and helping to shape the future of the business.

We need to make the second road the one we take. It is not going to be easy and it will require more strength, foresight and development at a time when many are feeling exhausted. The Skills Guide does give some useful insight into the importance of development, understanding our knowledge gaps and working out a road to where we want to be.

There has been so much discussion in recent years about getting a seat at the top table but I have long said that it requires a wider skillset than just being excellent at communication. Being business savy is vital, knowing the business and also being able to influence are essential. You may not want to become a CEO but we all need to regain our own and the industry’s confidence.

You can read the document here Comms Professional to CEO (cipr.co.uk)

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Are all things really equal?

It is being reported that people over the age of 80 will be offered a Covid-19 vaccine in the new vaccination centres that are being created. On the face of it that sounds like a major step forward and good news against the backdrop of rising deaths and infection rates. But it made me wonder about the practicalities for people to actually attend and get the vaccine.

The first challenge is that booking will be online or over the phone. Last year the digital revolution moved extremely quickly and there are many people who have been left behind. This includes many older people who are still reluctant to do online shopping, banking or to engage with services such as doctors through the new apps and websites. After that there is the challenge for how people actually get to these new centres. Many over 80s no longer drive, and if they do they are often uncomfortable with driving long distances. Due to the Covid restrictions they will not want to accept a lift from someone, and will be fearful of using public transport.

It is important to remember that there are many elderly and vulnerable people who have been shielding for almost a year. They have avoided going out and many will be extremely concerned and unwilling to venture outside particularly given the media headlines.

This situation highlights one of the aspects of crisis response and communication that has been occupying my thoughts for some time, which is building inequalities into the response. People making decisions, plans and defining the actions can work in isolation if they are not receiving and listening to the right advice. In the rush to take action and to show things are being done considering the consequences of the response can be forgotten. It is one of the reasons that I talk about the importance of consequence management to the response and critically to the crisis communication plan. (I cover it extensively in my book.)

As communicators we need to be involved in a conversation, listening as well as talking. We need to be asking the questions that others may not see, and to be aware of the mood, tone, and issues that exist. This means we must look at what is happening from the outside in, gain feedback, reach out to communities.

We know that inequality exists and that a crisis can make these inequalities greater or more obvious. This is why it is essential that crisis responders understand the implications of the approach they take, can work to be more inclusive, and create communication that supports this and is accessible. We must all try harder to achieve greater equality now more than ever.

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