It’s been a tragic start to the year. In just a few weeks we’ve seen devastating natural disasters around the world, killing thousands and affecting millions of people. Crisis has rolled into crisis and here in New Zealand we’ve just weathered our third major climate event since the year began with Cyclone Gabrielle taking lives and destroying homes and businesses. We’ve also seen some very different styles and approaches to leadership communication and this prompted one of the sections in this month’s PR Horizons update which looks at some of the highs and lows of crisis communication witnessed through each event and includes some tips for dealing with difficult leaders.
While crises have dominated collective thinking and focus - and rightly so - there have been other events on the horizon, including rapid developments in artificial intelligence, particularly with regard to search and two of the internet giants going head to head. The tussle for control between Microsoft and Google is discussed, along with implications of evolving AI for practitioners plus we touch on the business of trust, misinformation and rumour.
For a short time, the February briefing is free access for subscribers and you can take a look here.
I hope it gives you some food for thought and a chance to reflect on some of the issues and horizons we need to watch this month.
There's a space on the balcony where the old Queen once stood which the new King has yet to fill. And, with the crowds departed, the spurs hung up at the barracks, the grief stricken now safely at home, the other space to be filled is that of Britain's identity and place in the world. In these early days after her funeral, it seems the 'national' values held high by Queen Elizabeth II over seventy years may well have passed with her.
The collective grief expressed during the mourning period was, I believe, an opportunity for many to mourn not just their Queen but those they had lost during COVID, gone to their graves with no ceremony allowed, the occasion all but unmarked because of the restrictions in place at that time.
Perhaps the old Queen's last act of service to her people was to bring them together to weep and mourn. A wise friend of mine says that when we attend a funeral we are mourning not just the person in front of us but all those we have loved and lost before. At a state funeral, it not just the person we farewell - we farewell a time, an era, a way of being and an identity that we - and others - recognise.
The political and economic chaos that has followed the Queen's death has made it hard to pinpoint what new 'British' values will emerge. Watching from afar, it appears values are as rare as hen's teeth in Westminster with the only visible concern being to cling on to 'power' to ensure the 'leaders' (I use the term loosely) continue to live their life of privilege. Fairness, duty, steadfastness, justice, genuine concern and will for the lot of others - all seem to have evaporated in a puff of Thatcher-fuelled smoke.
I guess we'll just have to watch this space.
We've been witnessing the erosion of societal cohesion over the last two years, much of which has been due to those with a particular type of agenda making the most of misinformation or deliberately sowing disinformation to meet their own ends. As communication professionals one of our ongoing tasks is to surface facts, give them room to breathe and to challenge people and places where facts are replaced with fakes.
Mistrust in organisations of all types is at an all time low and the Edelman Trust Barometer indicates this has led to an expectation that businesses demonstrate societal leadership - the key question is whether they are willing and equipped to do so.
As practitioners, are we suitably equipped to discern the facts from the fiction? Can we differentiate between a genuine misunderstanding or malevolent malinformation?
I thought it would be helpful to outline the three types of information that can cause real problems for organisations - and individuals should they find themselves at the mercy of the conspiracy theorists.
The image above covers the three different types and, depending on the type, you can plan your approach. Misinformation can be fixed with fact while disinformation needs a discussion and investigation - who is behind it, what's the intention, how best can it be dealt with. The last one - malinformation, needs to be part of your crisis response as its effect is likely to be significant.
As part of our routine listening and monitoring, we should be scanning - and planning - for all of the above and know the action we need to take should any member of the terrible trio be found.
It's funny how we measure ourselves at the start of each year. Not all individuals or cultures mark this particular date but for many, January 1 assumes a multi-faceted mantle of change. The magic of a year turning enchants us with possibility so we plan and we plot ways to improve or alter our behaviours.
This year, alongside my own reflections on self-improvement, I found myself thinking about resolutions on a larger scale. What would I ask organisations, communities and governments to change in the year ahead with the focus - of course - on communication and the relationships they hold with their stakeholders?
Over the summer holidays I thought about this a great deal - and ended up with a very long list of potential improvements. Harder still was whittling the list down to a 'top three' that could be used by any organisation, large or small, public or private - but here goes.
In at number one - listen - which is not as obvious as you might think. And by 'listen' I don't mean the selfish vanity listening so many undertake. Real listening discovers the true health of stakeholder relationships. It identifies who needs attention, who needs help, what needs to be improved and ways this could be accomplished. Then, what is heard must be understood so the right actions can be taken at the right time.
Which brings us neatly to number two - learn. There is much to be learnt from listening and a willingness to learn allows organisations to develop the ability to adapt, to grow - and to survive in today's continual upheaval.
Finally, number three: remember. Listen, learn - and remember what was necessary to move closer to your purpose as an organisation. Remember where you started, what you hoped to achieve in those early days and, most importantly, remember the mistakes you've made along the way. What have you learnt from those mistakes? What did you have to do in order to correct them? How will it inform your progress in the future.
Three simple resolutions that could, together, make your organisation a better - and more effective - place to be. I wish you great resolve and great success for 2022.
Sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone - to echo a line from a favourite old song. And it is a line that also echoes the current predicament facing thousands of employers as they attempt to manage 'The Great Resignation'. Personally, I think it is more of a great escape as individuals take a long look at their career path, or a close look at the job they've somehow wound up doing and realise life's too short to be stuck with an employer who has no regard for them.
We've long known that internal communication, employee experience and simple decency on the part of the employer are essential if an organisation is going to achieve its goals, yet for many organisations such notions have been simmering dangerously on the back burner while they preoccupy themselves with shareholder interests, profits or politics.
Research from Edelman highlights that employees have overtaken shareholders as the most important stakeholders for an organisation - something we've known all along albeit something employers themselves have been slow to understand or have deliberately ignored.
This week I'm working with internal communicators on the shape of things to come as we navigate the ongoing COVID challenges. At the start of the pandemic, I counselled organisations that they should quickly turn themselves 'inside out' and take time to focus on employee relationships and what it meant to be part of their team. We've since survived the seismic shifts in the workplace - it really has been a case of 'the workplace is dead, long live the workplace'. Suddenly employers have realised just how important their workers are. Well, some have - others have turned a very dark corner, switching on surveillance software to monitor staff in their homes or sacked people en mass via text or social media.
With a multitude of research reports now in, we have new data to share with our leadership teams. Data that will help them understand that the employee experience is critical, that they have a duty of care to understand the external pressures their staff face, that they cannot remove themselves from the business of communication and, if they are going to use technology to 'keep in touch' then budgets must be found to equip staff with the devices and technology they need.
Employee wellbeing is central to the employee experience - financial, physical and emotional - and these are not areas that have been overly explored in the past. Banging out a newsletter and hoping for some good open rates won't work in today's world (it didn't before but that's a discussion for another day).
If employers stop, listen and truly understand the value of their people and do something to make their employees' experience a good one, they'll discover it is possible to dodge the great escape and keep hold of those who get the job done.
I had my second COVID19 vaccination today and felt very grateful to be in a place where I could end the day fully vaccinated. The pace of vaccination has quickened since we went into lockdowns of varying levels last month and no doubt it will continue to increase in the coming weeks.
Surprisingly - or maybe not surprisingly - there is still great resistance to this vaccine in certain pockets of society. Much of that resistance is fuelled by misinformation - or outright disinformation - which is where the value of good communication cannot be underestimated.
Trust underpins relationships and good communication helps to build that trust. When those determined to undermine the safety of others for their own gain are amplified it becomes much harder for the truth to wriggle into people's ears.
Government communications here in New Zealand have weakened considerably during this particular phase of the pandemic - messages are mixed, often contradictory and frequently hushed beneath the clamour of those shouting down and undermining the benefits of preventative medicine. When strategies wobble, communication lines begin to fray and, as it stands today, the fraying line is approaching maximum tension.
From the start, leaders took a health-first approach and, in doing so, saved thousands of lives. As the pandemic wears on, the strategy is beginning to wear thin which is very sad to see as a change at this point will, undoubtedly, have serious consequences. Firm up the strategy, explain why it works and communicate not by 'rote' and 'message' but by developing a genuine connection with people, addressing the doubts, fears and emotions. Hard to do when crisis communication has been the norm for almost two years (that's not counting the White Island tragedy or the Christchurch Terror Attack) and most of the team are exhausted. In the face of all the naysayers, everyone should be reminded that we have lost 28 lives to COVID here, we can still count the cases and track most of them to source. All the other countries now being referred to as 'moving out of COVID' or easing restrictions are still counting tens of thousands of cases a day and hundreds - if not thousands - of daily deaths.
Best advice - stick to the health-first strategy, recharge the team, swap them out for other communicators, tune in to communities rather than mainstream media, and develop a response based on listening to the reluctant, the frightened and the supporters that will overcome the anti-vax noise.
Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash
There’s a lot of talk about storytelling, behaviour change, social purpose and what organisations are doing to connect with their ‘target audiences’. Some of the solutions are quite grand, some extraordinarily expensive and some seemingly simple - but none of them are really solutions as they forget to address the most important aspect of any activity - who is it for and why?
Often the activities in questions are actually undertaken for the organisation itself so it can tick the box that says ‘we communicated’ but just sending stuff out doesn’t mean communication has taken place - it means you have sent stuff out.
Before you pick up a pen, start a plan, devise a strategy you have to know the who and why of what you are doing. There is no such thing as ‘the public’ and personally, I believe the description of people as ‘target audiences’ is something that should be consigned to mid-20th century history as a relic from the advertising industry. If you doubt the assertion that 'the public' doesn't exist, take a moment and consider how many different groups of people your organisation interacts with on a daily basis. Are they all the same? No. Do they all hold the same beliefs and interests? No. Do they all interact with you for the same reasons? No. So why would you expect the same story, told in the same way in the one place to engage with them all? You have to break it down and really understand the people who hold your organisation's licence to operate then you can start to plan, share stories, develop connections because there will be real people involved - not just organisational assumption and bias.
We tell stories for people, not at them and there’s a significant difference between ‘communicating to’ and ‘speaking with’ - one approach imposes information on a group while the other seeks to engage.
My mid-winter tip is to warm up your understanding of the people your organisation serves. Undertake regular community audits, build personas, ask for their views. There are many tools out there that make this critically important process much easier than it used to be so explore and play - it will be time very well spent.
At the tail end of Global Ethics Month, here's a recording of the webinar I delivered today looking at algorithms, ethics, chaos and calm. Help yourself to a listen and if you'd like the transcript, just ask.
You'll find some images to illustrate some of the thinking, a few bullet points and a number of animals to suit the mood. Main points covered include the role and responsibilities of public relations and communication professionals in tackling algorithmic bias, some thoughts on how we've arrived at this chaotic point in time, insights into the web's dark patterns and, of course, why we are what we click. Enjoy.
New dawns always brim with hope - the dawn in the picture is from the start of the year when we decided to take a sunrise stroll on the beach. Hope is the magic ingredient that keeps us afloat in the stormy months we've navigated and the stormy months ahead and, although this time of year is generally awash with predictions of what's to come, I thought I'd spend a moment reflecting on how we need to equip ourselves to face the next dawn rather than ruminate on what might be.
There's no magical transition point as the year turns. No moment when all becomes well or difficulties are suddenly resolved. It is, after all, simply a date. But dates give us horizons, give us something to hope for and look towards which is why 2021 has been greeted with relish by so many. We have to remember though that many people around the world count things differently, have different dates of hope so the horizons shift and change, depending on your situation and your perspective.
In the US, for example, many had hoped that the transition to a new year would have seen a shift in focus from November's election to the pandemic that has cut a swath through the lives of so many, reaping havoc and death with little support from those ostensibly in charge. A similar picture can be seen in the UK, struggling under a new strain but also bowed down by the incompetence of its leadership. It doesn't take a fortune teller to divine that life is going to be very hard in the year ahead so what - as professionals charged with making sense of situations for the communities we serve - can we do? What do we need to do in order to smooth the path ahead? Here's five ways we can think beyond the horizon and help others move forward in 2021.
It's very easy to get comfortable, to view the world around us in the same way but we have to remember that change is constant. The pace of change increases during a crisis and a global crisis such as COVID19 sees even greater acceleration and, although humans forget that change is constant, this acceleration is often too much for them to cope with. You might enjoy being a passenger in a car but when the driver takes the speed way beyond the agreed limit, comfort is removed. We can't go into 2021 as we have gone into the years that preceded it and, in writing that, I am mindful that for millions around the world, new year horizons over many decades have been mired in violence, disruption, disease and disadvantage, so the 'entering a new year as never before' is perhaps applicable to the 'richer' nations that have enjoyed the privilege of reasonable social stability until now. As relationship builders and communicators we have to change our position, change our minds and change our behaviours. We have to understand what it is like to walk in someone else's shoes - indeed we need to know what it is like to walk with no shoes. We must develop a deep understanding as to the position of others in relation to our organisations and society. We won't be able to help others navigate what's ahead if we are always looking inside out - we must start looking outside in and determine the connection and relationships points we need to build or improve in order to fulfil whatever purpose is before us. So get out there - do some experiential research. Really get to know and understand your stakeholders and communities. Burst your own bubble (metaphorically if you are sheltering at home) and reach out to others. Be uncomfortable, share their discomfort, then devise strategies to help you coexist and provide comfort.
Changing position helps us to think differently. Ever been 'stuck' writing something or figuring out a thorny problem then gone for a walk that's triggered a eureka moment? If we stay in the same spot, we'll think the same things, stagnate and, ultimately, find ourselves bogged down, unable to move forward. Old thinking isn't going to fix today's problems. Old economic, political and societal models are not going to be appropriate or relevant in the years ahead - so think differently. Devise new ways forward.
If we've changed position and gathered our thoughts we need to share them with others to turn them from ideas into realities that will benefit those around us. In sharing our thoughts and ideas we need to move away from the long-held communication structures that equate information with power and shift into open communication that is clear, authentic and trustworthy. We must develop communication processes that value listening before speaking, discussion rather than instruction, collaboration rather than conflict. If we continue with the 'speak, instruct, conflict' model of authoritarian communication that has become so prevalent in recent years we will be on the road to nowhere, the horizon increasingly obscured. Our job - and it is an urgent job - is to help our organisations change their approach and show them how to communicate openly.
Be constantly curious
Two great ways to learn fast are making mistakes and asking great questions. It is inevitable that we will all make huge mistakes in the year ahead and my hope for you is that your mistakes are manageable ones. By thinking first - and I've always said the thinking we do takes the most time - the mistakes should be minimal, so think well and think beyond the now. Committing yourself to learning is to be constantly curious. It means asking the seemingly obvious question, asking the hard questions and asking the questions that will increase your knowledge and develop your understanding. There is always something new to learn and when we are exploring uncharted territory we will inevitably encounter things we don't know or have not experienced before - so be prepared to learn, learn fast and learn something new every day for the rest of your life.
I've been asked many times what is the most important characteristic or capability for a public relations or communications professional and my answer is always the same - courage. Having the courage to ask the hard questions, take a different position, think creatively and learn from mistakes is essential if we are to do our jobs ethically and well. In our world of constant change, the need for courage is a constant. It takes courage to challenge your boss over bad practice when you know that doing so could mean no job at all but it's got to be done, especially if the resulting change reduces inequity and restores trust. Bravery confronts danger without fear - courage confronts danger despite the fear.
There's a final thought for you before I end - take heart, stay hopeful and act with compassion. There's much difficulty and danger to be confronted in the world but there is also much goodness and generosity. We've seen it in the selfless work of medical staff and carers around the world, we've seen it in the support people have given to each other, be that physical support with food or simply a long phone call to listen to their fears. As you confront the challenges, remember to draw strength from that goodness and look boldly towards and beyond the horizon.
August has been a bit of a blur of webinars, question and answer sessions and debates on the nature of what we do. As the month came to a close, having answered all the questions asked of me as best I could, I decided it was time to update our 'What is PR?' video which has all the answers to the question 'What is PR', including definitions of public relations, our purpose and a newly minted PR Atom model in motion that shows you how it all works. Enjoy.
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.