Why engagement needs to change

A well-used phrase of mine – which bewilders my kids – is: if a tree falls in a forest and no-one’s around to hear it, how do you know it’s fallen?

It’s not intended as a philosophical question. In a work context, it’s used to stress the importance of letting people know what you’re doing, rather than just doing it and expecting a response.

So, if you’re creating a website, let people know it’s there. If a council makes plans that affect people’s lives, telling them early and offering a chance to feedback should be part of that process.

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? It is to us, and colleagues and clients work every day to engage the public on important things that affect their lives.

Looking more widely, however, there remains a gap created by complexity and exacerbated by a lack of awareness.

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Cities need more than a ‘back to work’ campaign

One of my saddest moments from the last six months came when I left our office in Bristol for the last time before lockdown started. *

It was 19 March and news broke that all but ‘essential’ travel for work was discouraged. Full lockdown was four days away, but we decided at Social to work from home until further notice from that point. Although we were used to flexible working, vacating our offices en masse took things to a different level.

On the bus home from Bristol, my head was spinning with questions. How are our clients coping? Would clients leave us? What would happen if they did? When would we see the office or colleagues again? After all our work over the previous two-and-a-half years to build a viable business, this felt wounding and deeply unfair. Swapping WhatsApp messages with colleagues, sitting on the top deck, I felt alone.

That week, I spoke with each member of the Bristol team and felt that while there was a chance of getting through this, we had to dig in and work for that outcome. And that’s what we did.

We’ve kept most clients and found new work. We’ve moved into new areas, helping clients engage communities, manage issues and grow. We’ve grown and created new jobs. This week, a new starter joins my team. We’ve done all of this from home, having left our office in the summer.

When I think of how I felt on the way home in March, what’s happened since feels incredible. For me, it’s been a steep learning curve. It’s been physically and emotionally draining. Above all, it’s been hard work.

This is my personal backdrop to recent stories about the emerging narrative to persuade people to get ‘back to work’ in a bid to save city centres.

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Businesses can steer us away from Carmageddon

Lockdown has provided us with the biggest behaviour change programme we have ever seen. It would be a real travesty if we went back to ‘business as usual’ without locking in some of the benefits achieved during lockdown.

Ann O’Driscoll, North Bristol Suscom.

Wherever you’ve worked over the last three months, most of us can agree that lockdown has been challenging. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that its impact will be far-reaching and long-lasting.

But, as the West of England emerges from lockdown with the rest of the country, it feels right to reflect on some positive things to emerge from this crisis that are worth holding on to.

Businesses at the West of England Initiative’s latest meeting heard from those leading the local conversation on how we travel about lockdown’s impact on traffic congestion, air quality and carbon emissions. The findings are stark:

  • Peak time traffic levels in Bristol are said to be around 40% lower than pre-lockdown levels, although are back on the increase.
  • Bus passenger numbers are reported to be at around 13% of ordinary levels.
  • Air quality in cities is markedly improved as traffic has fallen.
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Bristol shows actions speak louder than words

A version of this article was published in Bristol 24/7 on 11 June. Thanks to Martin Booth and the team for the opportunity to provide some thoughts on an extraordinary week for a city we are proud to be part of.

I’m not from Bristol but have grown to love it over the decade I’ve worked here. I love the city for its creativity, positive outlook and for how it does things its own way, rightly or wrongly.

Bristol’s idiosyncratic streak is part of what makes it such a special place, for all its foibles. Its failure to adequately address questions over its history with regards to figures like Edward Colston sit uneasily with its image as a diverse, multicultural city.

This uneasiness collided with direct action on Sunday, when Colston’s statue was toppled from its plinth and dumped in the Floating Harbour, where it’s remained until it was retrieved on Thursday.

I know from my work for the government and with other organisations in the city that reflecting Bristol’s past in the ‘here and now’ has been discussed over many years. After all that talking, Bristol has demonstrated that actions will speak louder than words.

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Toppling Colston’s statue could be an iconic moment for Bristol

This article was published in PR Week on 9 June. Thanks to them for giving me the opportunity to provide some thoughts from the perspective of a Bristol-based business.

Recent anti-racism protests across the world illustrate that, while language matters, action changes things.

Sunday’s dramatic events in Bristol, where debates about 17th century slave trader and former MP Edward Colston have simmered for many years, are a case in point.

Discussions about how a man with shared responsibility for transporting tens of thousands of Africans to British colonies is reflected in Bristol’s history were swept aside by protesters. It highlighted a sense that the time for talking (and getting nowhere) is over. In reality, as the debate goes global, the local conversation may be about to get going again.

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Time to speed up spin’s decline

“Dominic Cummings faced an agonising decision. But he made the wrong call, at a time when the government’s guidance to the public to stay at home was clear. I understand the public’s anger and have made this clear in my discussions with him. But I do not believe this error is serious enough to cost anyone their job. Dominic Cummings still has much to offer this government. I want us to move forward and focus entirely on recovering from the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.”

[A suggested response].

You may disagree with the words used above, and there are many other things that can be said about Dominic Cummings’ breach of the government’s guidance by travelling to Durham. But if you heard something like this from the Prime Minister before this crisis engulfed his government, how would you feel?

You may be hacked off that the architect of the government’s ‘stay home’ message travelled 260 miles as the rest of the country followed the guidance.

Would acknowledging an error of judgement have ‘drawn a line’ under the issue? It won’t have stopped the negative headlines, it’s true. But it may have lessened the hit to its reputation, which has been severe. It could be lasting.

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