Confusing. Evasive. Flat-footed. Vague! Communicators often come in for criticism during moments of crisis.
Several high-profile examples hit the headlines since our last newsletter. They always stir up debate in our office, and amongst our PR friends.
First up is the BBC’s response to Gary Lineker’s tweet criticising the government’s small boats policy. I’ve included it below, without passing comment on it, to be clear on what was (and wasn’t) said.
The BBC’s late statement, its tone and inconsistent application of its social media policies stoked a culture war and damaged relations with government and staff. Former BBC news editor and Number 10 Director of Comms Craig Oliver (£) sets out a level-headed assessment of the situation which seemed absent at the height of the crisis. His points: make time to prioritise decisions. Move quickly and decisively. Accept there is no perfect solution that will please everyone.
Commentators also mentioned comms’ role – or lack of – in former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s evasive and tetchy performance at the privileges committee of MPs’ investigation into the Partygate scandal. In fairness, and as I’ve mentioned before, we’re well past the stage of blaming a culture of ministerial evasion on comms people. This has happened for years and needs changing.
And this report from the Housing Ombudsman into Catalyst Housing’s complaints handling and aftercare makes important points around poor communication, sharing information, tone and language. It points to a sector under pressure, created steadily in the absence of effective regulation over the last decade. Many comms people have warned of these risks. Sector leaders must own them now.
Volatile, uncertain, chaotic, and ambiguous. These words formed an acronym – VUCA – a few years ago summarising how modern life feels for many organisations.
Uncertainty shaped the narrative for much of 2022. Then September’s awful fiscal event brought other elements of the VUCA matrix more clearly into view.
It’s an interesting time to set up a new business, with inflation and cost-of-living concerns nudging the economy towards recession. Amidst the haze, predicting what to expect from 2023 seems like a mug’s game.
We can see this year will be challenging, for sure. We shouldn’t limit our ambition, but nor should we be too hard on ourselves if things don’t go to plan. Getting through it in decent shape, with a happy team that’s proud of its work would be a good outcome for 2023. And there will be opportunities and memorable moments too.
Liz Truss’ press conference performance last Friday had the air of a disgruntled employee working out their notice in a job that was never for them.
Terse and evasive, her blank stare resembled a zoned out manager who had reached the end of their tenure. Taking just four questions from a room full of journalists – and answering none properly – failed to match the seriousness of the moment.
And don’t forget, this was the moment when her economic policy fell apart, less than a month after its unveling. She announced it without contrition, suggesting that the markets weren’t ready for her Growth Plan.
This highlights a long-running issue with spin that I’ve banged on about for years. But they’re not even spinning a line any more. They’ve stopped answering questions and left us staring at an empty podium wondering what the hell just happened.
Here are a few moments which hopefully illustrate my point.
Events of the past week provided an opportunity for collective reflection, whatever your views on the monarchy.
I felt unexpectedly emotional and uncertain about the Queen’s passing. There is some personal context. I turned 47 on Sunday and have come through a tough couple of years. The last thing we needed was more uncertainty. But despite the madness happening around us, I start the week feeling optimistic about the future.
I’ve been saddened and moved, without approaching anything near full on ‘mourning’. It was strange stepping away from blanket media coverage and online discourse about a ‘nation in grief’ to see people having coffees, travelling to meetings and getting on with their lives.
Good comms, bad comms
I’ve supported clients’ communications whilst looking on in bemusement as some brands showed ‘respect’ in weird ways that caused a stink. On Twitter, @GrieveWatch provided some light relief by sharing the dafter examples of ‘respect’.
Many comms people (once again) provided sound advice during the mourning period. They helped organisations strike the right balance between respecting those affected by the Queen’s death whilst recognising that many will not be. They advised against anything too promotional and put events and campaigns on hold. And, yes, if they had been in the room at the time, they would have said that kicking paying customers off site for a day isn’t ‘respectful’.
As the Queen’s funeral approached, the gap between what I’m seeing and the media narrative has narrowed. After years of backbiting and division, here we are feeling and speaking as one, right? Or, at least, we’re giving people space to express their views without trashing them for it.
I take heart from how so many people joined this conversation. They used words like ‘dignified’, ‘duty’ and ‘constant’ repeatedly. Many saying this did not know the Queen. This highlights the strength of a narrative supported by an enduring truth.
It also points to something we seem to have lost. And it all stands in stark contrast to how we see today’s political and business leaders.
My recent blog-writing efforts reflect my tired plod towards the end the year. I’ve been busier than ever in 2021 and have not written and published a full blog on this website for a couple of months. I’ve started a few, but not finished them all. Others were overtaken by events. But those I have written have performed better than they did last year.
It’s a fitting metaphor for a stop-start year: grinding, but ultimately good.