#WeAreBristol: statement for a city for hope

#WeAreBristol image

Watching Sunday’s scenes of rioting in Bristol gain traction across the world brought home a mix of feelings about a city and people I have barely seen over the last year.  

I know we were not alone in our dismay and anger at what happened. Many have said the scenes did not represent the city they know and experience up close.

Everyone’s experiences of Bristol are different, it’s true. For all the ‘best places to live’ write-ups, challenges around deprivation, equality of opportunity and housing are real and have terrible consequences for those at the sharp end. There are many, many good people who have worked tirelessly this year (and long before that) to address these challenges. They deserve our gratitude, not sniping from the side-lines.

We are proud of our connections with Bristol and of our colleagues who work and live here with their partners and families. We were struck by the response of thousands of Bristolians who appeared to speak as one this week in saying: this is not who we are.

We wanted to do something to capture this sentiment. So we were pleased to be asked to create a statement from Bristol City Leaders group, which was released on 25 March and is included below.

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Building trust takes more than soundbites

I’ve thought fitfully about relationships and how they shape our views during this grinding start to the year.

They keep families, teams, political organisations and communities of interest together. They’re imperfect, occasionaly fractious and sometimes maddening. But we would not be ourselves without them.

Connections and shared experiences that make life worth living have festered on the backburner since March last year. No amount of Zoom catch ups can fill the void this creates in our lives.

This is the context to my becoming more anxious with feelings that, for all the benefits that technology brings, people aren’t connecting with others who hold different views to theirs.

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PR disaster? Good comms people are proving their worth

Good clear comms has proved its worth

How was 2020 for you? If you work in comms, it’s probably been a mixed bag at best.

COVID-19 wreaked huge damage on parts of the sector, with jobs and businesses lost. Many who stayed in work, in the public and private sector, were much busier and more stressed. They worked under a cloud of uncertainty, responding to constantly changing events.

There will be learning points from this. On balance though, comms professionals can be proud of how they supported the COVID-19 response. They helped organisations adapt, kept the public and stakeholders informed and saved lives. Need convincing? Check out these examples of how the NHS is responding across all these fronts on #FuturePRoof’s website.

It’s a great shame, then, to see comments about ‘PR disasters’ when mistakes happen. It featured in commentary on the government’s COVID response, around issues created and managed (badly) by people like Dominic Cummings. Its cousin – the ‘comms failing’ – was name-checked when local leaders raised legitimate concerns at being out of the loop on important policy announcements affecting their areas.

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Three points for government comms – and three for me – during lockdown

This week marks the start of a new financial year for us at Social, and my first as managing director of our South West division. I enter it with mixed emotions.

On the upside, I feel elated at our achievements in this most challenging of years. Our team doubled its size and turnover in 2020. We raised the bar in the quality of our work and the type of clients we’re supporting. We’ve adjusted brilliantly to enforced changes in how we work. We’ve been flexible, empathetic and innovative in supporting our clients.

While I don’t take any of this for granted, it is tempered by sadness, anger and despondency at the national response to the pandemic. As a comms person, I’ve despaired at what I’ve seen and heard about events leading up to the latest lockdown announcement.

In an attempt to set this out in coherently, I’ve split this post into two sections: three things I’d change about the government’s handling of this crisis and three things I will do myself. It’s not intended as a plan; it’s more a way to collate my thoughts and feelings to help me to look ahead with clarity.   

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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 any of them 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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