Internal comms in the public sector

Blog by Elizabeth Skeels, internal communications manager for Essex Police

Given the frenetic pace of work over the last five months, I feel like I’ve gained a lifetime’s worth of experience.

Elizabeth Skeels, internal communications manager, Essex Police

It’s so tempting to use words like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘historic’ when talking about these ‘current times’ (another ubiquitous phrase at the moment), but I’m sure I’m not alone amongst internal communications professionals when I say that alongside a seismic shift in society, we’ve also seen a once-in-a-career shift in the appreciation for our industry.

I was recently invited by CIPR East Anglia to join a Q&A session alongside Mel Atkinson, corporate external comms manager, for Norfolk County Council, to talk about what I’ve learned whilst being the Internal Communications Manager for Essex Police during the coronavirus pandemic.

I think many of us have emerged with very similar scars from battling the challenges that the pandemic presented. Whether it’s having to support an organisation to adapt to an entirely new way of working overnight or keeping up with the pace of societal and legislative change or desperately trying to understand the latest public health messaging.

To create some kind of structure and consistency during the crazy months of March and April, I used some tried and tested internal communications tactics, including:

  • a resource hub of Covid-19 information and policy on our intranet
  • a weekly, virtual leadership briefing for strategic messages to be shared and cascaded
  • a visible ‘lead’ in force who published regular updates that immediately followed and translated the key messages from the briefings from Number 10
  • a daily briefing document for police officers which collated all the latest operational guidance

We also published regular media briefings on our external messaging, to maximise the opportunities around employee advocacy. This was so important because in times of crisis or uncertainty, the public looks to the police to help and protect them. By providing our employees with direction on our external communications strategy we were able to amplify our messaging and reinforce our policing approach to engage with our communities, building trust and confidence.

Not everything worked – anecdotal feedback from officers is that we over-communicated and the volume of information was too much to absorb. I can completely take that on board. But there were some impressive results:

  • of the new COVID-19 internal channels, we evaluated that our Coronavirus info page had 126% more views than a comparable page for the month of March 2020.
  • 75% of the public surveyed think that Essex Police is doing a good or excellent job policing during the Coronavirus pandemic
  • 82% of the public fully support the approach Essex Police has taken during the pandemic

Most internal communications professionals would love to be able to find a direct, measurable link between internal engagement and external impact. In our case, there’s a definite causal link between the consistent messaging that we used within the organisation and the consistent policing approach our communities experienced and supported in such overwhelming numbers.

During the Comms: inside and out webinar I was asked what I considered to be the greatest success for our communications activities during the last five months of the coronavirus. My answer: getting through it! It’s been incredibly tough and it would be really rewarding to be able to measure everything that we’d done, but I take comfort in the thought that we did our best and we contributed something positive during this devastating global crisis.   

10 tips from 10 years running my own PR agency

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on

It’s now ten years since I started my own PR and marketing agency and, even in the current circumstances, things continue to go from strength to strength.

Pre-Brexit, pre-COVID, 2010 certainly seems like a long time ago, so I thought it would be a good time to write down some of what I’ve learnt over the last decade. And as I foolishly wrote a post entitled 5 things I’ve learnt in 5 years of running my own business in 2015, I’ve now got to up my game and come up with 10 lessons…………

1. Network, network, network

I’d estimate over 95% of my client business has come from referrals from people I’ve worked with in the past or personal recommendations. In fact, I can directly link a huge chunk of my revenues over the years to one contact and the people and companies she’s introduced me to. I’m not a pushy networker – this has all come from doing a good job for people, keeping in contact and never burning any bridges.

2. Pay it forward

When I started up lots of people gave up their time to help, from recommending what I needed to do on the admin side of running a business, to providing introductions or just listening. I’ve tried to do the same for people I meet starting up – hopefully I’ve been able to help, rather than hinder their growth!

3. It’s not a competition

Linked to being helpful is realising that PR and marketing is a big field when you are a freelance or a small agency. Clearly you have competition, but the likelihood of coming up against someone you know in a pitch is small. So being open and helping others won’t have an impact on your own success – and you’ll learn as much as (or more than) you give. And meeting with fellow practitioners is great for setting the world to rights and getting out of your own bubble.

4. Be agile

I started with a belief that I’d be offering PR services with a smattering of copywriting and a bit of social media. Ten years on I’m primarily providing marketing consultancy in its broadest sense, with creating content the biggest part of what I do. Obviously do what you are comfortable with, but be flexible, particularly with smaller clients and tailor what you are doing to their actual objectives.

5. Be brave

Setting up your own agency is a risk, but it delivers incredible satisfaction and rewards. While we all need to bring in revenues (have you seen how much three teenage boys can eat in a day?), be prepared to say no to clients you don’t feel comfortable working with. Or, if you have to keep them on for financial reasons in the short-term, look for alternatives that you can replace them with down the line.

6. Be prepared to continually learn

As I said what I do has changed dramatically and it has meant learning new skills and brushing up old ones. Ensure that you are continually learning, both to ensure you stay relevant and to keep yourself sharp and on top of new ideas.

7. Don’t be an idiot

Or, as Joe Glover of the Marketing Meetup puts it “Be positively lovely.” Bear in mind that everyone you meet could be a potential client or help you in some way and treat them with respect and give them time. You’ll feel better about yourself and it could help you in the future too.

8. Learn to let go

Something I find difficult to do, but make sure you switch off from work and recharge your batteries. It isn’t easy, particularly if you are based from home and have a smartphone pinging every time a new email arrives. Develop coping strategies – whether that’s going for a run, spending time with your family or taking the dog for a long walk.

9. Be creative

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, doing the same thing you’ve always done, in the same way you’ve always done it. Like learning new skills, take the time to approach problems from new directions or solve them in different ways. Share and brainstorm issues with people you trust to get their perspective and spark new ideas.

10. Don’t try and do everything yourself

There’s a huge range of support services out there, from marketing and PR software to really good accountants and advisors. Outsource what you can to other experts – bear in mind that you only have a limited amount of time in the day, and in many cases others can do tasks much faster, more cost-effectively and just plain better than you.

Ten years of work equates to over 57,000 hours of hard graft, which is a sobering thought. I’d never have been able to get this far without the support of countless people over the decade – thanks for all your help and here’s to the next decade.

Blog by Chris Measures

Crisis comms for public sector

Blog by Mel Atkinson, communications manager (corporate affairs) at Norfolk County Council

I thought I was experienced in crisis comms – and then Covid 19 arrived.

Mel Atkinson, corporate external comms manager, Norfolk County Council

Our NHS, social care and key worker colleagues deserve all the plaudits for their dedication, professionalism and bravery throughout this pandemic.

Public sector comms supported their efforts to protect the public’s health and wellbeing, through clear messaging, reassurance and information.

The pace, complexity and sensitivity of the issues presented daily and long-term communications challenges – and lots of learning.

Councils and their partners have had a wide-ranging role during the pandemic, including: public health advice and tackling outbreaks; supporting vulnerable adults and children through social care, befriending of lonely people and deliveries of food and medicine; helping the care sector to source protective personal equipment; working with hospitals on the safe discharge of Covid patients; advising schools on how to reopen, safely; setting up temporary mortuaries; ensuring key services were available online, when libraries and other facilities closed; and planning for how to implement the easing of lockdown and economic recovery.

The key communications challenges were:

  1. Responding to a relentless flurry of game-changing announcements from the Government, while attempting to look ahead and plan future phases of our comms work
  2. Working with the grain of Government messaging, while identifying the need to clarify and tailor aspects of it to our audiences
  3. Ensuring the council and its director of public health provided the main local voice of reassurance, advice and authority
  4. Partnership working and co-ordinated communications to ensure a united front across all public agencies in Norfolk – maximising the impact of our messaging
  5. Managing a comms team remotely, to ensure people who were working from home and were facing their own stresses were supported and valued and productive

The experience we gained over the last few months should improve the way we serve the public and our organisations:

  1. Comms has demonstrated, in the toughest circumstances, that it is a skilled, strategic profession. It should be wired into key plans and decision-making from the start.
  2. Swift, sensible and informed decisions can be made when the right people are in the room/Zoom. The culture of copying in half the world to approve comms products needs to end.
  3. Genuine partnership working can take place, if comms reps are open and respect the particular issues each organisation has. Let’s not second guess each other and let’s focus on the shared aims.
  4. Up-front accountability and engagement with our audiences, including the media, builds trust and should continue beyond crisis periods.
  5. Our teams have shown they will rise to exceptional challenges, if you understand them as individuals, you actually care about them and you show you are human, too.

As chief medical officer Chris Whitty said, we are not out of the woods yet. But public sector comms will continue to play its part – striving to be strategic, agile and effective, in the toughest of circumstances.

I’ll share my key lessons and takeaway points from an external comms perspective in the CIPR East Anglia’s webinar on 29th July at 7pm alongside Elizabeth Skeels from Essex Police who will share her experiences from an internal comms perspective. Sign up for free here.

Meeting industry heroes and upskilling during Covid-19

Picture credit – Image by congerdesign from Pixabay. Blog written by committee member Michelle Nelson.

I heard an interesting stat the other day. Kids ask their parents 300+ questions a day. Love a stat.

But it got me thinking, ‘When does our curiosity for the world around us emerge?’. I was definitely the child that asked ‘Why?’ and who could be found working my way through the shelves of my local library for a book I hadn’t read, which I’d later tear through by torchlight under the bedcovers.

That love for learning has been my constant companion over the years. Love it or hate it, lately you may not have had a choice. Certainly, a spot of judicious remote learning could be just the ticket to break you out of lockdown, help you upskill or simply be a source of comfort and support.

At the start of this year, after three intensive years of study alongside my full-time job, I was looking forward to kicking back with a bit of light reading in the garden at the weekend with a glass of Pimms. But, thanks to COVID-19, I’ve found myself spending more time at home. And guess what, the urge to learn soon returned.

Virtually we have no limit on our learning. Virtual is our global classroom and the world are our classmates. There are no limits to our learning and the people we can reach out to.

Granted, we are all at different stages in how COVID-19 has impacted our lives – so do something or do nothing, it’s your choice. It doesn’t even have to be career related. It is what makes you feel stimulated whether that be learning candle making or string theory.

But, if it is career-related, and you are thinking of pivoting your career or just enhancing your skillset – the first thing I would recommend you do is:

  1. Get a big pad of paper  
  2. Write down all the things you are good at and not so good at
  3. Look at it as a sort of Venn diagram – what is the bit in the middle? The ‘I want to know more about this’, ‘never want to do any of that ever again’, or ‘I have always wanted to try this’. Or maybe, if you are reaching for the next rung on the career ladder, ‘what will help me get my next job?’.

I wanted to broaden my knowledge of coding. I had managed over 10 websites with agencies over my career and coded the odd newsletter, but I had never built a website from scratch.

By chance I received an email from Camb.AI, promoting new courses on learning coding from Codefirstgirls. Look them up! They are a great initiative offering free courses to try and get more women into the STEM community.

So, I signed up and, on a Thursday at 6.30 pm, I joined an eight-week virtual course with 20+ other coding newbies from around the UK. After introductions, it was straight into the world of HTML, CSS and JavaScript with live demos, homework, and a Google drive and Slack network to collaborate. Our mission, should we choose to accept it and complete the course, was to create our own website in groups and put it online. My project group chose cinema and we developed two pages each. I created the comedy and about us page. Chatting with each other on Slack I found a virtual camaraderie and spirit of curiosity to learn more about web developing.

Our week eight finale was a show and tell of each other’s sites. I had begun genuinely looking forward to tuning into these weekly sessions and working with my project group and it was with excitement tinged with sadness that I logged onto the group link for the final end of term webinar. Our teams had done our tutors proud. Three websites with three completely different themes and which surprisingly looked thoroughly professional. The first was for a virtual book club, the second for an Italian restaurant and ours for the love of film. The course culminated with a small drinks reception and with a prize given at the end for the best website. It’s certainly whetted my appetite to do more, especially since our project team won best website design, but most of all for me it was the taking part and meeting kindred spirits who had the same shared passion to learn.

In recent weeks I have attended probably about 40 webinars given by a variety of providers on agile project management, data analytics in PR, marketing trends and design thinking. I am interested in technology and data and how it can be applied to marketing communications. Aside from meeting great people online, it has also been about meeting my heroes too. If you’d told me in the space of six weeks I’d be in a room with Rand Fishkin from Moz, Mark Ritson, Tom Fishburne and Belinda Waldock, I’d have found it hard to believe, but this lockdown has done that. It has put some of our key industry thought leaders and provokers at our fingertips.

For me, as well as learning, it is also about giving back and helping others. I have provided a list below of some of the links I have found useful. As a member of the CIPR and volunteer Committee member for East Anglia, I have been working with the team locally and nationally to co-host webinars, mentor colleagues who want to become chartered and to host training and guidance events. These resources can be found on the CIPR East Anglia website and the CIPR’s extensive database of learning.

If your interest in learning during lockdown has also been sparked, what are your goals? Or, if you have already embarked on a learning challenge since lockdown, what are you up to? I would genuinely be interested to hear about your learning experiences during lockdown. #lifelonglearning

Webinars resources

The Marketing Meet-up – founded by Joe Glover hosts physical and virtual marketing events around the UK and overseas – check out the recent blogs from industry greats.

Cambridge Network – a broad selection of industry focussed events and webinars

Marketing Week – The Lowdown – A series of prominent industry speakers share their thoughts on everything from humour and creativity to the importance of brand and leadership during COVID-19.

PR Insight – A series of podcasts and virtual events from PRmoment focussing on PR measurement and wider industry topics.

Business as unusual

Guest blog written by Barney Brown, Head of Digital Communications at the University of Cambridge and one of the speakers lined up for CIPR East Anglia’s postponed 2020 Best PRactice Conference. Barney writes about how the need for a new digital strategy for the University of Cambridge is more critical than ever in these unusual times.

Working for a University since 2008 has taught me that the ebb and flow of Digital Communications is expected to match that of term times rather than calendar years or financial years. In reality there has never been any ebb, perhaps because the University of Cambridge’s digital presence totals at least two thousand websites containing millions of web pages. Collectively these pages serve the needs of students, applicants, researchers, members of staff, the media, interested members of the public and beyond.

Trying to make sense of this digital estate, and how it can be improved to enhance user experience, simplify the maintenance of it and protect and promote the brand is at the heart of a five-year programme of work: The Digital Presence Programme. The focus of the programme, who was going to work on it and the scope of it were agreed and green lit just before the Coronavirus hit. That left the board running it with a dilemma, pause the work or prioritise it? As a co-leader of the programme alongside Kate Livingstone (a leader in User Experience at the University) we strongly advocated pushing forward.

Practically nobody at the University can avoid interacting with digital channels in one shape or another in order to work through their days, and that has meant an explosion of new content, adding to the mountain that already exists. So we’ve agreed to continue and in fact accelerate the work as much as we can. Principles that we had already started establishing around content strategy have been put to practice straight away in areas of our site like the Coronavirus pages, and a push to analyse and prepare for better uses of Intranets and collaboration tools has become a race.

At the core of the five-year programme is the idea that we assess what we have, what our audiences are and where they are, and how we can better use external vs internal channels, public vs private content. Our existing setup at the University has understandably resulted in nearly all content, irrespective of intended audience, appearing on monolithic public facing websites. These are now being audited and assessed. Do people always need new websites for new projects? In nearly all cases, the answer is no. Is a website, or conventional web pages the best solution for a problem? Increasingly not.

We are challenging ourselves to question the need for the over two million web pages that make up What purpose do they all serve? How can we maintain them all? How can they be better designed to work across multiple devices, interact with authoritative sources of data, and bring in new audiences? All of this in an environment which rightly devolves the act of creation and publishing of content across hundreds of departments.

Now could have been the perfect opportunity to pause and take stock of a programme like this and question its relevance in the face of financial and practical pressures, but in reality we need it to start flying now more than ever. The approaches and processes we’re adopting to develop the programme are changing and evolving on a weekly basis which feels positive.

When we finally get back to our physical offices the work will continue in this new normal, and in truth I think the programme and all of us will benefit from it.

Let’s “nail this puppy to the floor”* freelancers!

I’ve been a freelance PR consultant for the best part of two decades, so I’ve seen a few ups and downs. When the 2008 crash hit, my client list was dominated by commercial property companies; a year later it had quite a different focus.

To even consider becoming a freelancer or independent consultant you’ve got to enjoy an element of risk, be adaptable, flexible and happy not to know what the next day, never mind the next month or year, might hold. You could say then that when the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown that followed came along we were better placed than most to ride the storm. Yes and no.

Yes, for the very reasons I’ve just outlined. We’re always expecting the unexpected: the client who doesn’t come good after promising the earth, the one who doesn’t pay, the one who suddenly reappears after going quiet. At the end of March, as employed people started working from home and you couldn’t move for blogs offering WFH tips we smiled wryly. But then even the home office (our comfortable territory) started to change. Most of us may have previously made the odd Skype call, but Zoom and Teams were as new to us as to anyone else.  Some of us also suddenly had other people in the house during the day – some of them even children! This was now an alien landscape for us too!

Then as Chancellor Rishi Sunak came back day after day offering goodies to different elements of the workforce, it slowly dawned on us many of us (those with limited companies) that there would be no safety net.  Of course we’re used to feast or famine, it’s how we operate. But this felt different.

I was extremely lucky to have picked up an internal communications client just before lockdown. This work suddenly became more urgent, decisions were being made more quickly and, because everyone felt in the same boat at home, I gelled with the team there much more quickly than if I’d been going in and out of their office. Interestingly it was internal comms that came up as one of the biggest opportunities for independents as we move through this crisis at a webinar for PR freelancers organised by the CIPR Independents’ Group and Women in PR this month. 

I’ve already said we’re good at adapting, and experts on the webinar also suggested that the nimble and cost effective nature of freelancers will put us at the forefront of the recovery. We just have to be ready for what’s out there, which could mean brushing up on or developing some new skills. Having said that, most experienced freelancers will have experience that fits most possible scenarios and can turn their hands to most comms-related activities.

If you’ve time on your hands you can also take advantage of the many experts offering free or very affordable online training, such as with the CIPR’s webinar series.  Also offering time and support has been the communications freelance community, which has pulled together through offers of support for struggling colleagues and via networking groups. Darren Caveney (a speaker at last year’s CIPR East Anglia Best Practice Conference) has for example set up a support group through WhatsApp, Slack and weekly Zoom coffee and Twitter chats.  I’ve found these a great support along with regular catch-ups with my colleagues on the CIPR East Anglia committee.

Like many others I’ve been re-watching favourite boxsets in lockdown, the most recent being W1A. So to borrow from the language of *Siobhan Sharpe from ‘pr company’ Perfect Curve: “Let’s do this freelancers, let’s ride this train, let’s nail this puppy to the floor!”

Judith Gaskell, Cambridge PR

When the black dog bites

This week (18-24 May) has been designated as Mental Health Week and – now more than ever – we’re aware of the importance of maintaining mental health, and recognising when we, or others, may be struggling.

The last CIPR State of the Profession survey revealed that 21% of public relations practitioners live with, or have previously lived with, a diagnosed mental health condition. Over half of those respondents said their work contributes highly to their diagnosis.

CIPR member Nic Wray shares some of the tips she has learned from her own experience with anxiety and depression.

As someone who has overcome serious mental health issues in the past and is ever-vigilant (not always successfully) for signs that my wellbeing is slipping, here’s some of the tips and techniques I’ve used over the last three decades to keep (mostly) happy and healthy.

Stay connected. When you’re feeling less than chipper, it’s tempting to become a hermit, and the current situation makes it very easy to avoid people. Reaching out doesn’t have to be a three hour Zoom call with all your extended family – it can be as easy as sending someone a funny meme, or a short text. Reading Twitter definitely counts, as long as you’ve curated your feed wisely. Mute and block, mute and block…

Talk about your worries. This can be the scary one. If you’re like me, there will lots of negative self-talk going on in the vein of “what makes my problems so important?” and “they’re going to think I’m a drama queen” but honestly, most people will be happy to listen. If it’s easier, when you start talking, say whether you just want to vent or whether you’re looking to bounce solutions around. If you really can’t face talking to someone you know, helplines do fantastic work. Samaritans is the best known, but CALM (for young men) and Mind are great, too.

Help others. When we can’t be kind to ourselves, we can generally be kind to other people, giving them our time, our support or our skills. Even at my lowest, I was able to volunteer for a couple of community groups. This was great not only for taking me out of myself, but building up my self-esteem and self-worth. What you do doesn’t have to be big – sharing a charity ask on social media, or checking on a neighbour are valuable too.

Get the right fuel. Some days this might mean a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, but that’s only a short term fix. Our physical health can have a big impact on how we feel, so I’m afraid the usual “healthy living” advice applies: well-balanced meals, drinking enough water, avoiding smoking and drugs, not drinking too much alcohol. But you don’t have to make too much effort –a tin of spaghetti hoops on wholemeal toast is healthy and even one of your “five a day”, apparently. Fruit juice, (bought) smoothies, soup or cereal are my go-tos when I’m down as they are low effort, and reasonably nutritious.

The E word. When you can barely lift your head from your pillow, the thought of exercise isn’t enticing. It’s not high on the list of fun things for me to do when I’m feeling fine to be honest, but I do know that a walk always makes me feel better. Especially when I really don’t want to go for one. The key here is finding an activity you enjoy, so that it doesn’t feel like a chore. My walking is usually combined with the online “treasure hunt” that is geocaching, to give me a goal to take a few more steps. Yoga is another favourite, although I usually go for the seated variety these days.

Get creative for fun. As communications and PR people, we’re used to conjuring up words, ideas or visuals on demand and to a deadline. And that does sometimes suck the joy out of creativity. I tend to choose an activity that switches the active part of my brain off, and I pick up something I can do effortlessly, leaving me free to focus mindfully on sensations such as touch, colour or repeated movements. I get this fulfilment through needles and thread or yarn, or by working in my garden, but activities such as baking, colouring in, completing jigsaws, building lego are other things to try.

Raindrops on roses. I probably spent too many rainy days as a child watching musicals on TV because both Maria in The Sound of Music and Anna in The King and I sang when they were afraid, and so do I. I sing incredibly badly, and sometimes I don’t even sing out loud, but mime theatrically. It’s impossible to cry while you are belting out your favourite upbeat numbers after the first few bars. A little dance is optional, but it ticks off something else on this list!

Professional help. There are times when you have to take stock and realise that you might need a little extra support, and the situation isn’t something you can deal with yourself. This is where the professionals come in. Your GP is the gatekeeper to NHS services and can prescribe medication to help you sleep or help your mood. Your employer may well have counselling provision available if you have an Employee Assistance Programme, and for CIPR members, the iprovision mental health hotline is available at no cost 24/7, 365 days a year.

The iprovision hotline is found here (you’ll need to log into your CIPR account).

More details about support via iprovision can be found here.

A global pandemic? That wasn’t on our conference checklist!

When we volunteered as co-organisers of this year’s Best PRactice Conference, which was due to take place this month, we did it a little apprehensively. Would we get a line up of speakers people wanted to hear from? Would we secure a great venue? Would we sell enough tickets? One thing we didn’t factor into those concerns was a global pandemic!

As we started to plan the event, our initial fears quickly dissipated; we immediately fell in love with the stunning, award-winning venue Storey’s Field Centre, and tickets started to sell like proverbial hot cakes as we brought together a diverse range of speakers to cover a diverse range of (what we thought at the time) hot topics, from fake news to personal brand, the latest in digital communications to change communications. Of course, these are still hot topics, but not necessarily in the way we viewed them back then.

When Covid-19 obliged us to postpone the conference, we kept in touch with our speakers and knew we’d made great choices when we saw the contribution they were making to Covid-19 communications. For example, monitoring and evaluation expert Jennifer Sanchis quickly showed her expertise in this area through her advice on  how communications experts might go about monitoring and evaluating crisis comms plans for Covid-19, while CIPR board member Trudy Lewis , who is lined up to talk about managing change communications,  couldn’t have been more spot on! It’s no surprise that Trudy is now calling for comms people to start looking forward and focus on what’s to come.  CIPR President Elect Mandy Pearse, who is due to open the conference, has written about how the need for professional PR has never been greater and Barney Brown, Head of Digital Communications at the University of Cambridge, has written a blog on how the need for a new digital strategy for the university is more critical than ever in these unusual times.

While some of our speakers can look at how communications professionals are meeting the challenges of Covid-19 and how they will be at the forefront of leading us out of it, others are already very much on the front line. Just think of the experiences that Alex Aiken, Head of Government Communications, and Lorna Mackinnon of Essex Police will be able to bring to our conference when it finally happens!

Even our venue has been doing us proud, putting itself in the ‘blue’ spotlight recently when it joined the #makeitblue campaign in support of key workers.  

So our Best Practice conference may have joined us in lockdown for now but, when the time comes, we remain confident that it will be more relevant than ever. A big thank you to the vast majority of  ticket-holders who have been happy to wait for it to be rescheduled and, to the rest of the East Anglia comms folk out there, get ready to join us for what promises to be a valuable opportunity to ensure you’re equipped to meet the challenges of a post-lockdown world.

Ruth Jackson and Judith Gaskell, CIPR East Anglia committee members

Coronavirus – stay alert to the risks of vague guidance

Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.

Stay Alert. Control the virus. Save Lives.

The long-anticipated announcement from the Prime Minister regarding the next stage of the coronavirus outbreak has left nobody feeling any more certain.

In fact, it raised uncomfortable memories of the vague and conflicting messaging the week before lockdown began.

To paraphrase – ‘Try to socially distance. We’re not closing pubs and things, but we’re recommending they choose to close. You can go out if you want, but if you do it too much then we’ll stop you doing it. But we’re not stopping you right now, until you give us reason to.’

What we have seen in recent years is that people need imperatives – tangible instructions which can be clearly understood and therefore followed. Make America Great Again. Take Back Control. Here’s what we want to do, here’s what you’re contributing towards. Whether you agree with the content or not, it’s a strong message.

What people don’t need during this immensely challenging time is to feel like they’re making their own impossible decisions, potentially choosing between their career and their health. It was that level of personal freedom – or lack of clarity and leadership – in the early stages which set us back so far.

‘Stay Home’ is still a perfectly accurate instruction, there was no need to change it. There may now be more nuance around it, but there always was. Stay at home – UNLESS you’re a key worker. UNLESS you’re exercising. UNLESS you’re buying food. UNLESS you’re supporting others. For now, at least, there is only one more caveat to add – UNLESS you need to go to work because you can’t work from home.

‘Stay alert’ is so vague and broad as to be completely meaningless, and removing the prior ‘Stay Home’ message – in addition to changing the messaging colour scheme from a warning red and yellow to a cheerful yellow and green – will leave some to conclude that they simply don’t need to stay home any more. The regulations have been relaxed.

Encouraging people to avoid using public transport where possible is no help to those who have no other way of getting to work. Many people in rural communities or large metropolitan cities rely largely or entirely on bus, tram and tube services. We have already seen increased crowding on tubes in the aftermath of the announcement. The caveat ‘where possible’ is simply not enough.

Any announcement simply has to offer more answers than it generates questions, and that was not the case yesterday. This seems not to be a communications issue, but an issue with heeding the advice of communications professionals. A timely reminder that this outbreak will not be controlled solely within the spheres of health or the economy, but also by the ability of those in power to communicate this advice effectively.


The reality of furlough

Discombobulating – that’s what I call it. 

Last month, along with a few other colleagues, I was furloughed and found myself in a similar situation to many across the UK. It has been a rollercoaster of emotions, ranging from uncertainty and feeling I have lost my job, to be able to take a walk in the countryside each day, and doing things I’ve put off for ages and that I enjoy, as I don’t have work.

I am lucky to be without dependents or large overheads, but my main concern is not knowing what will happen at the end of furlough, especially now this has been extended to the end of June.

Some may think that this is the ideal situation: ‘What? You still get paid, but you don’t have to do any work?!’ but it comes with its demons. If you like what you do and are a social person who likes to be around people, it can be hard not to have daily contact with your team, and there is a worry about career progression.

Here are some things I have learnt from my experience in furlough, what I have been up to (or plan to get up to) and some tips for if you are feeling a little lost, like me.

  1. It’s not the end of the world

When I was first asked to be furloughed, I cried. I called my boyfriend and he reminded me of all the reasons why it will be fine. I cried because I felt like I was losing my job – I was told on a Monday, then I had the rest of Monday and Tuesday to hand all my work over to my colleagues. It happened quickly, so I could be furloughed from 1st April.

I was upset and scared because I didn’t fully understand what it meant (who knew what furlough meant before March 2020?) and that worried me. Now I understand it more and know what position I am in, it is not the end of the world. Take comfort in the fact that you still have a job and are getting paid some money, if not all of it.

I miss my colleagues and the work, and I do worry that I won’t have a job to go back to, but I am not my job. There are other things out there that will present themselves if I find myself in that position.

Some days are obviously harder than others – we are all at heightened anxiety right now – and we’re having to think more because we are not in our usual routines. Some days I feel full of energy and others I don’t, even if I haven’t done much. This is a strange time for everyone, you will not be at your ‘peak’ every day and you need to remember that. 

  1. Do things you enjoy

We may never get this time again, so don’t feel the need to bake up a storm or knit jumpers like all the celebs seem to be doing – focus on the things you enjoy.

Spend more time with your family or whoever you live with. If you live by yourself, take the opportunity to focus on yourself. Some people may struggle to be constantly on their own and all of our wellbeing may suffer, so try and use this time to learn about yourself and focus on your mental health. Put some time aside for things you enjoy or pick up new hobbies.

For instance, I have wanted to scrapbook my previous holidays for a couple of years and now I have the time to do it. I have and will be taking more time to declutter rooms ready to donate or recycle. I will be spending more time in the garden enjoying the sunshine and I will be cooking and baking more because I do enjoy it.

I will not rush any of these activities and I will not compare myself to other people on social media who look like they can ‘do it all’.

  1. Explore professionally developing yourself

Is there a course you have always wanted to do or something you have always wanted to learn more about? Furlough is a good opportunity to explore these courses. But remember – only do them if you have time AND inclination. It’s okay to not explore this, too.

I’m taking the opportunity to improve my writing skills for PR and marketing. I am also interested in learning more about other topics like SEO and photography.

  1. Volunteer, if you can

There will be many organisations who are struggling right now and not just food banks or shelters. If you would like to help the local community and are able to, I would highly recommend looking at your local area and contacting some charities to see if there is any way you can help.

Local councils have plenty of resources for those who can volunteer their time as well. You can donate food for food banks at supermarkets or you can donate money. For those that can donate their time and they are healthy, there will be something out there for you.

Knowing how much these organisations need help, one of the first things I did when furloughed was contact my local food bank to ask if they needed support, and they did. I help out when I can, monitoring their emails, social media and website. Every little helps. 

  1. Keep in touch

I enjoy what I do and who I work for, so being furloughed was upsetting because I wouldn’t have that daily contact with my team and colleagues.

I have found that I can just as easily keep in touch with everyone I want to via social media, messaging sites and online forums.

I’m joining virtual PR calls, like the CIPR East Anglia meetups that happen three times a month, so I can see and talk to other like minded people. I’m a very sociable person so I like to know how everyone is doing and just be with other people chatting and listening. I hope some others can relate to this.

Apps like Houseparty (other apps available) have been fun to play games with friends around the country.

  1. Have a Plan B

Even though there is every chance we’ll continue to keep our jobs by the time furlough ends, it is always a good idea to have your CV up to date and ready-to-go. This also ensures you take stock of what you have achieved and are ready if the undesirable happens.

This is a realistic and practical thing to do. Don’t see it as something to worry about; you are just being prepared.

  1. Get outside (once a day)

I ensure I get myself outside once a day for at least 30 minutes. I am lucky that I live in the countryside surrounded by fields and rivers and don’t see many people when I’m out. I also listen to my favourite podcasts whilst walking. 

Of course, this is harder for some, but trust me it helps. I have seen some great ways of making walks fun if you live in urban areas by enjoying the little things, the flowers in windows or growing up walls, the sky and the clouds, the way the birds sound, the cute or dramatic doorways, the walls, and the chimneys. Make use of this time, when you can.

Remember to be kind, to yourself and to others and we will get through this.

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