#PlaceIndex webinar catch up: engaging communities after the pandemic

Industry leaders discussed our inaugural Place Index report at a webinar organised by Social colleagues today (14 May 2021).

It was an enjoyable and fascinating discussion chaired by political journalist Geri Scott, which covered key issues raised in our recently published report. I was on the panel discussing topics including ‘levelling up’, engaging young people about the future of their areas and building trust in the development process.

My heartfelt thanks go to colleagues for organising the session and for working on the report over recent months. It’s been seen by loads of people, been well picked up in the media and was great to work on. I hope those reading it find it useful.

Thanks also to TCPA’s Fiona Howie, MOBIE’s Mark Southgate and Ahead Partnership’s Stephanie Burras CBE for joining the panel today. We had some great feedback and want to do something like this again soon. If you attended and asked questions, thank you too. I hope to see you in person at a future event before too long.

You can catch up on the webinar below. It lasts for about an hour.

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Looking south west: are you up for joining us?

Just over a year ago, we left our offices to start working from home – all together, at once. I wrote then about how our culture would help us through the tough times ahead. So, it’s proved to be.

In the year that’s followed my emotional trudge from our Bristol office, we’ve invested considerable time and energy in supporting each other through lockdown,

That support, implicit in our Life Happens company value, enabled us to grow during this most challenging of years. In the South West, we’ve doubled in size and are working on high profile, incredibly exciting accounts.

Although it’s been breathless at times, we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. Our team promoted high quality places on sites with capacity for more than 12,000 homes last year. We’ve put the £85m regeneration of Gloucester city centre on a national platform. We’ve engaged communities on the future of Portishead town centre, drawing feedback from hundreds of people in the process. All this and more during lockdown. 

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How to tell your story better: ask ‘why?’

If you work in comms, you’ll know that explaining your job to other people is challenging at times. This isn’t the same as explaining what you do, which can also be hard. *

Explaining the work of the organisation you represent is also tough, not least because it’s not just about you. It takes time navigating different perspectives. It requires understanding of the organisation and its key audiences. The explanation must be clear, memorable and relevant.

And (deep breath) it needs approving before it sees the light of day.

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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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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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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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