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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Things to hold on to after lockdown

I’m glad we’ve reached the end of April. It was relentless and stressful. It’s chipped away at my income and mental wellbeing as COVID-19 has wreaked havoc.

After seven weeks, the novelty of lockdown is long gone. With the daily death toll increasing by hundreds of people, knowing that we’ll have social distancing for a few months is sobering.

Walking in High Street in Wells is a brutal reminder of COVID-19’s impact on places, which stand empty and desolate. I’m not alone in feeling that lockdown can’t end soon enough.

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Why government press conferences should change after COVID-19

I’ve often found press conferences frustrating during my career as a journalist, PR person and (lately) as a public observer.

They have their uses. When there is major focus on an issue, they provide all interested media with the latest information. This ensures consistency and even-handedness.

Following criticism of anonymous briefings on COVID-19 to select media, press conferences entered the spotlight as a daily part of the government’s efforts to keep the public updated on the pandemic response. Since mid-March, millions of people are watching them regularly. Many on my Twitter feed – journalists, politicians, comms people, family and friends – appear baffled at journalists’ questions and frustrated at politicians’ non-answers.

Anyone who’s attended or arranged press conferences will recognise these glitches, which are highlighted every day.

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Responding to the new normal: update your comms strategy in eight steps

The response to the COVID-19 outbreak has highlighted the importance of timely, good communications in the effort to keep the public informed.

As this crisis has evolved, agile comms and clear messaging have been at the heart of the government’s approach. Communications also features in many stories about things that aren’t going so well, as people struggle to get the information they need.

Bristol’s roads, 4pm on Thursday

Comms comes in for some stick. The challenge of accessing the right detail whilst coping with information overload has been huge.

But some of it is working. We are seeing information about support available for businesses come from government to local communities very quickly.

And looking outside suggests the ‘stay at home’ directive is hitting some with most people.

This was a traffic map of Bristol city centre at 4pm on Thursday, 2 April.

This picture is replicated across the country as people heed the government’s advice to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives.

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