Blow away the dark clouds

Post after post on social media is providing some insight, advice or guidance as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. The past year has shown how important our psychological wellbeing is and how we need to build our own resilience. The words are fine but it is the personal experiences that do much more.

We could all experience pressure that pushes us to breaking point, no matter who we are or what we do. It only needs a set of circumstances and events to happen that together can push you to the edge. I know because after years of feeling invincible I found a series of events led me to a very dark place.

That was two years ago although it feels like another lifetime. At that point in my life I could see no way out of the pressure that I was under. I had very dark thoughts and there were many more tears than smiles. It was only the animal companions I have that gave me a reason to get up some mornings. It felt like there was a dark cloud above me and it never went away. Not only did this seriously affect my life but it had a huge impact on those around me. My family went through the terrible experience with me and were frustrated that they could not help me.

I have said before that when your world caves in you have to accept it and then work with friends, family and experts to find a way out of the dark pit. You also need to make sure you don’t step back into it. This takes some time and care.

All this is important. You have to identify ways to help yourself when you are under pressure. You need to build your personal resilience. But you also need to see the positive in the situationsyou encounter when they threaten your wellbeing. There is only one way to do this and that is to change your thought processes. I am writing this blog for anyone who is going through family issues, bereavement and pressure at home. Don’t think your life is over it has only just got going.

One important piece of advice that has remained with me is to recognise that the only way to deal with things is to move forward. Seeing the demands of the situation at hand and keep updating your plans to address it. People said I would look back on my terrible circumstances and in time see the opportunities it had brought me. I didn’t believe them but now I do. I can see the difficult time has taken me to a much brighter place.

Here I am two years on and I feel strong and in control of my life. I ensure that I recognise even the smallest of achievements. I try to keep focused on the moment rather than rushing ahead with partial information. I have been able to establish a network of amazing people who are always around for support when I need it the most. I have written each day of the things I am most grateful for in my life. All the focus on the negative has been replaced with a drive to find the positive and celebrate it.

There is hope. There is a way to deal with the negative thoughts and move on. And if you find yourself at rock bottom then you can rise up from it. I am just one story among many and hopefully these real stories may help others particularly during this week.

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Look beyond the surface

The past 12 months have given us all time to reflect and consider who we are, what we are doing and most importantly what we want to do. I was not surprised to see that there has been such a significant increase in reports of depression. When we stop and step off the hamster wheel of life it can bring up so many questions that we need to answer. I have said many times before that what matters if you are in desperate need is getting the right help.

It also seems that either there has been an increase in people struggling with imposter syndrome or we are feeling more able to talk about it. In the past few months I seem to have had the same conversations with many people who are questioning themselves and their ability. The lack of real contact with people for more than a year must be contributing to how we are viewing ourselves and the world.

We only see the good things that people have in their lives when we are viewing social media, and now the same is happening with our work lives. Everyone else is coping. Everyone else is competent. Everyone else is managing their workload. Everyone else is having a work/life balance and managing things. In reality, we all have our struggles.

What matters is not trying to spend a lot of time working out why we feel this way but to find ways to deal with it and ensure that it doesn’t impact on our lives. The biggest impact it can have is to limit our ambition, and to keep us in what we feel is a safe space. There are many great resources out there and the Internet is full of Ted talks, articles, podcasts and more all talking about the subject. But it is hearing about how people have overcome it, or seeing those who appear to be at the top of their game explain what it means to them, that have been the most beneficial to me.

Why am I writing about this now? Well, despite being busy, having lots of ideas, and wanting to push the business forward I have found myself almost crippled by Imposter Syndrome feelings. Sometimes when we push ourselves and we move outside of that comfortable space then it can allow these feelings to surface. How am I trying to deal with it? I am taking one day at a time, and I am trying to rationalise situations. I am focusing on what I can do rather than what I can’t. I am determined to ensure these feelings will not overtake and define me and what I do.

If you are feeling the same remember you are not alone, everyone has those feelings at some time, and find what works for you to rise above it.

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Is artificial intelligence able to deliver effective crisis communication?

Communicators are being told to get familiar with artificial intelligence because it will be critical to the future. That is not something I disagree with. There is a lot that the development of AI can bring both to the world of PR and to managing a crisis.

I read with interest a blog on The Crisis Response Journal (Crisis Response Journal : The role of AI and machine learning in public safety ( by Marta Azevedo Silva from the European Emergency Number Association. It highlights the aspects where the margin for error can be removed by machine learning that can take in and assess more data than the human brain. I was drawn to the comment:

“Machines can process huge amounts of data faster than humans can. They can also analyse a situation with emotional detachment and, as seen above, constantly learn to improve.”

It is the element of ’emotional detachment’ that causes me some concern. One of the key aspects, for me, in an effective crisis communication response is the ability to view and assess the mood and tone. This does mean you need to look from the outside of what has happened, and put yourself into the position of those who have been affected. But an element of emotion in your personal reaction is not a bad thing if you are aware of it and manage it.

When we just refer to logic and procedure for the crisis communication response we miss the point. On too many occasions we see communication in the early stages of an emergency or critical incident that provides lots of facts but is without any feeling. What we need to do is ensure that there is humanity and empathy with the words that we use. And of course all this needs to be authentic or it will be called out as fake.

In the future artificial intelligence may be able to recognise and respond to human emotion, and when it does then it may be able to provide crisis communication that hits the mark. Until that point we should harness what we can from it but always remain focused on the people that are caught up in the incident.

If you are interested in the possible future of artificial intelligence within the crisis communication response, you may want to watch this webinar I did a few months ago with expert in the area Kerry Sheehan. (

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Being seen to do the right thing

When people and organisations are under pressure there is one thing that is vital to remember, and that is transparency. The natural inclination is to pull down the shutters and try to keep people at bay while we deal with the crisis in front of us. But this is the moment when we need to be more open and accessible.

The situation faced by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the moment could have been prevented if there was a greater transparency about that activity and actions taken. I was listening to media reports this morning and it all boils down to one thing, opening up and letting people see what is happening.

When you are a big institution, powerful organisation, or multi-national business the requirement to be open and transparent about your activities is greater. Why? When you have significiant power and what you do impacts on people’s lives then you will be under greater scrutiny. This scrutiny is not just ‘tittle-tattle’, gossip or unwarranted attention. It is an important strand of democracy which is around legitimate challenging of actions, behaviour and situations.

For many years I worked in an organisation that had to keep much of its work hidden from public view. There was good reason for most of it, which was about keeping people safe and tackling criminals. Being transparent about the work was at the heart of all the communication work that was undertaken. I remember in the early days of work to tackle terrorists that the media were brought behind the scenes to be able to see what was underway and also ask those probing questions. And it wasn’t just the media community leaders had been brought behind the scenes of operations that were being developed.

It is easy to say that you are being transparent. You may publish information, share details of what is happening, and answer queries. But is your organisation really being transparent? Are you opening up even when things get hard? Do you willingly allow scrutiny of finances and financial decisions? Will you allow people to see the decision making discussions taking place? Or is your transparency about a tick in a box and being seen to do the right thing?

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What has changed?

How has the first week with some relaxation of restrictions been? Have you been for a haircut? Have you met up with friends for on outdoor coffee? Have you been into a beer garden? I confess I have done nothing different and it isn’t just because I have been busy with work. Reflecting on the situation since Monday I realise I am avoiding lots of physical interactions.

I have become more used to shopping when there is no-one around, going online for what I need whenever possible, and doing without lots of things that I used to think were vital to my quality of life. At the same time my parents are still staying home until they get the second vaccination when I hope they may start to venture out. No-one could have imagined in early 2020 that things would have changed so much.

It is more than just finding that I could do without a lot of things. There is a level of concern that I feel when I am in a crowd. A full year of being told about social distancing has left me wary of those around me. When there are groups waiting at beer gardens I can feel myself tense up and like many I worry about another wave arriving. All this makes me realise that the pandemic has changed me and how I view the world.

Change goes hand-in-hand with crisis. On some level there is always a process of change that occurs when moving into recovery and out of the problem. It may be that the learning from the crisis requires a new way of working, adaptations to the business processes, or just a change to the crisis communication plan. But some crises are so huge they have a more lasting impact. This current Covid-19 crisis is changing the ways we live.

Will I ever want to go back into the middle of a crowd? I don’t know. Will I feel comfortable shopping during busier times? Possibly. Am I going to keep buying things I may not need? Definitely not. What matters now is that I recognise the situation and make sure that the changes are not negatively impacting on my life. There is no pressure to go back into the beer garden and when I feel ready to and want to I may do it.

What I know is that the little things in life have become the big things for me. Spending time in the garden, enjoying a chat with the neighbours, and being near my pets are truly precious to me. I don’t think that will ever change.

What has the pandemic changed for you? I would love to hear what you want to have in life and what you might have realised you can do without.

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It’s a risky business

This morning I got out of bed and ready for the day ahead risking falling over or twisting an ankle putting my clothes on. I drove to check on my horse at the stables, risking a car accident. I used a range of tools to clean out my horse, risking an agricultural injury. And when I got home I made a cup of tea and some toast risking burning myself.

None of those risks actually happened but I had made a calculated decision to carry on with the activity despite the many risks. Our appetite and understanding of risk is something that is becoming central to the discussions around living with Covid-19. The headlines today are looking at the risks of having the Astra Zeneca vaccine compared with the risk of not having it. But we have been so used to taking risks without thinking about it that when we have to think about it we are stopped in our tracks.

Yesterday I listened to an interesting webinar looking at building community resilience and the inputs included people working to develop community resilience in other countries. One speaker discussed the CERT programme in America and what it brings when volunteers start to assist in the response in a managed way. It led to a discussion about what we could see here in the UK and how much people may benefit from programmes to discuss emergencies, disasters and crises.

What is clear to me is that we have to do much more in the months and years ahead to help people to recognise how risks can and should be managed, what to do when a crisis happens, how they can help with the response and ultimately how this will build resilient communities.

Everything in life has risks attached to it. Even lying in bed has risks of deep vain thrombosis or other health issues. We face these risks all the time but put them to the back of our mind. Why do we drive cars? Because they help us get from A to B and that outweighs the risks of being involved in an accident. The vaccine discussion has become a focus because it is something new that we are trying to assess, and we need to reason through the situation.

The past 12 months and the future of living with Covid-19 has brought our mortality right into our daily lives. We don’t want to think about dying and we like the certainty and predictability of each day. In reality, we don’t know what is round the corner and one minute we are living life and the next we are gone. I don’t mean to get morbid but it is just fact. As the saying goes there are only two certainties in life – death and taxes.

What we really need to do is have an ongoing discussion about risks and how we assess and deal with risks in our daily lives. Nothing is 100 per cent safe and that is just something we have to accept.

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One word at a time

When a crisis hits an organisation why do the words they use matter so much? Surely it is what the organisation does that matters more? It is true the actions are the heart of the response. But for most people watching on from outside they have to rely on what is said to be an indication of what is happening. For me that is why we need to be focused on every word that we say in the response to a crisis.

The whole issue has been brought to the forefront of my mind today as I saw the headlines about Oxfam and that an investigation is now underway into allegations of sexual exploitation, bullying and mismanagement. Only those working in Oxfam and those involved in the inquiry will have an understanding of what the situation is, the truth of what happened and how it happened. For everyone else there is only one way of understanding what has happened and that is through the media commentary and the statements from the organisation at the centre of the crisis in this case Oxfam.

Media reported the statement from Oxfam as: “We can confirm we have suspended two members of Oxfam staff in the DRC as part of an ongoing external investigation, which we set up last November, into allegations of abuses of power, including bullying and sexual misconduct. We are acutely aware of our duty to survivors, including in supporting them to speak out safely. We are working hard to conclude the investigation fairly, safely and effectively.”

Those are the words that people will have to use to gather an understanding of the situation. For me, words matter a lot and in the early stages of a crisis they are all people have. There are a number of issues with what has been said. If you consider it in its entirity it appears both dismissive and an attempt to show they were doing the right thing as in ‘we set up’ and ‘we are acutely aware’. It lacks some humility and recognising the concerns that people will have again after what happened in 2018.

I also am concerned about the use of the phrase ‘acutely aware of our duty to survivors’. The people affected by this matter the most. It is not a duty to support them but the right thing to do. And I remain at a loss to understand why ‘acutely’ was used as it leaves a sense of them saying ‘we know what we are doing and need no reminders about this’. I have many questions about how those affected are being supported. The phrase ‘we are working hard’ could be seen as reassurance that a lot is being done, but may lead to questions about why it has taken from November to April and still there is no conclusion.

This situation is going to raise concerns among many and only at the conclusion of the investigation can we have better knowledge of what has happened. Until then we are left with just the words.

As communicators we should ask questions about an organisation’s response and challenge if we need to. The words cannot make up for a poor response and I always say you can’t communicate your way out of a poor response to a situation. However, taking care about the words that are used is critical to effective crisis communication.

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Reflections on 12 months going it alone

Twelve months ago the world changed dramatically. We were suddenly faced with the horrendousness of living through a pandemic. This was something no-one had ever experienced. Its impact was global and things were scary. One thing was clear this was not the time to set up a new business but that is what I did.

Today marks my first year running my crisis communication consultancy. I started from my home office on 23 March 2020 a date I will never forget particularly because it marked the start of lockdown due to Covid-19. My carefully crafted business plan had to be torn up overnight and I was faced with building a new business in this uncertain world.

I am talking about the rollercoaster experience of this year at a PR Agency Bootcamp conference later today so have been reflecting on what I have learnt from this experience. The first thing is that if you want to do something, if you have a dream, then go for it. Life is very fragile, as we have all found out, so you need to just give things a go. Stepping into the unknown after a lifetime as an employee was worrying. I had become familiar with what to do and with the way days looked. This was new, and for me, uncharted territory.

One of the biggest things I have learnt this year is to be comfortable with me, and have some self belief. It is easy to start looking around at what others are doing and become concerned as well as doubting yourself. I went into this to try and plough my own furrow so as long as I am providing a service that people want it doesn’t matter if it is different to what others are doing. I am starting to realise that people choose to work with you because you are you and not because you are trying to be someone else.

I have been surprised and overwhelmed by the amount of support that I have been given during the past year. My family have been simply amazing being 100 per cent behind me every step of the way. Friends have been there to pick me up when I was having a wobble. I have the most wonderful friends. But beyond that colleagues and fellow PR and comms professionals have supported me throughout the year. Many will never realise how much their kind words or supportive comment has meant to me often when I was in a moment of self doubt. I am truly grateful to everyone that has helped me get to this milestone.

Being my own boss isn’t easy. There have been many ups and downs but then there have been for everyone this past 12 months. What we all need to keep doing is picking ourselves up from those tough moments, building our resilience and celebrate those successes. I keep a little jar near my desk where I write notes about what positive things have happened. When I am having a down day I can delve in a pick a note that reminds me of good things which helps to lift my spirits.

I have learnt a lot about myself during the year. I know I am stronger than I thought I was. I know I enjoy working with a whole range of businesses and organisations learning about them and helping where I can. And I know that I have to embrace spreadsheets and financial projections. My systems and processes have come on a lot since 23 March last year.

If anyone is thinking of going it alone then I will always be here to offer any help and support. It isn’t easy but it is very liberating after almost 30 years as an employee. Sometimes you just need to take a leap of faith and go for your dreams. This 12 months has been me living my dream and enjoying it. Thank you to all my clients, friends and supporters for being with me during the year. I am looking forward to what the next 12 months will bring.

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Trying to fit the mould

It was with a huge amount of personal interest that I read today’s Sunday Mirror report about misogyny in policing. After two decades working in two police forces I have had experiences that are both good and bad. When I started in 1999 it was a different world and I did face what I would call everyday sexism and comments that may not have been intended to upset and demean but had that effect on me. A lot had changed in 20 years but there are still many issues to address.

In my life to date I have worked in shops, bakeries, pubs, newsrooms, PR offices, quango organisations and police buildings. It is fair to say that I have experienced sexist behaviour in every one of those places at some time. The problems exist across the board whether it is within the team or it comes from customers. But I believe the situations are intensified where there is a male dominated environment. Cultures are able to thrive and develop and may go unchecked if there is one dominant perspective on the world.

None of my experiences have ever stopped me from doing what I wanted to but they did mean I changed and adapted. It is only after two years outside of policing that I realised how much I had hidden parts of me and developed others. All of this was done to ‘fit in’ or at least make my life easier. Did I feel that I wasn’t ‘one of the boys’? No, but I had adapted who I was to make this happen.

Don’t get me wrong I enjoyed my 20 years and would do it all again if I had the same opportunities. Police communication has an attraction, as with other public sector communication, as you can feel part of the frontline work to help people. But in 2021 and beyond there needs to be real change to foster and developed diverse and inclusive cultures. It isn’t easy and it isn’t just an issue for policing. This is something that all workplaces need to address.

A diverse workforce where people are supported for being who they are has been talked about a lot. What is needed now is action. Those at the top of organisations should not be defensive but should be open and listen to what their employees are saying. It is by working closely with employees that they will be able to make the change that is required.

People should be encouraged to go for jobs and careers that they want to do. No-one should feel ‘put off’ from reaching for their dreams. The discussion needs to move away from policing and into every workplace if we are really going to make a change.

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Perfectly imperfect

It has been a busy week for anyone looking at reputation management, emergencies and crisis communication. There have been so many things happening from the situation in London last weekend through to the ongoing disputes and disagreements about the Covid vaccinations. In all there was a common thread within the interviews and responses. There was a lack of willingness to recognise that things could be improved.

One of the essential elements of crisis communication is undertaking regular debriefs and learning from what is happening as it happens. When a problem emerges and develops you have to make sure you are reviewing the impact of decisions that are made, adapting what you do and learning when something does not go the way you had hoped. However, there appears to be an increasing trend in the statements that are made and interviews that are given not to accept things could be improved.

Are we really saying that everything we do when we are in the middle of a crisis is perfect? Is there no room for improvement in what we do? Do we have to wait until the crisis is ended before we reflect on what happened and the decisions that were made?

When we know that honesty and transparency are central principles for crisis communication then we need to be comfortable with talking about learning and development that is taking place. After a year living with a pandemic people are more knowledgeable about managing risk and more understanding about responders learning and developing. So why do we avoid saying that we are reviewing and learning as things happen?

It is too easy to avoid talking about how things are being developed and improved. Instead organisations appear defensive and almost with an arrogance that they did everything right in the response. This is not to encourage a blame game. In the middle of a crisis there is no time to be pointing figures, talking about blame or diverting attention to lengthy inquiries. All of those will no doubt be evident once the crisis is over. But that doesn’t mean that organisations need to maintain a position of being infallible while they are making decisions and taking action to respond.

Crisis communication responses need to be honest, open and have integrity, which means talking about a learning organisation that is meeting the demands of the situation in the best way but is reviewing and adapting as necessary.

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