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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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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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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Thoughts on good comms during this crisis

Although the true extent of damage caused by coronavirus won’t be known for ages, its impact on our lives has been greater than anyone could have imagined even a month ago.

Times are tough, for all of us. Everyone is adjusting to its impact.

A lifelong friend of my father is believed to have died as a result of coronavirus, aged in his mid-60s. He’s one of more than 1,200 people to have lost their lives as a result of the disease at the time of writing this post. Makeshift hospitals and mortuaries built to cope with the continued rise in cases are grim indications of what’s to come.

People are worried about their employment prospects. I speak to others who work in my industry who are concerned about the impact this crisis will have on their livelihoods. This is borne out in #FutureProof’s survey on the PR industry’s concerns. We aren’t alone in having these challenges.  

We’re all responding to these pressures in different ways. Keeping pace with vast amounts of fast-changing information on COVID-19, whilst juggling work and caring responsibilities is challenging. We can be very proud of how we’ve responded to it.

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