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.
We have a new government here in New Zealand. It's the same one as before, led by Jacinda Ardern, just back bigger. Under our voting system, we generally have a government formed by the collaboration of two or more parties but this time - for the first time since the system was introduced - a party was elected in sufficient numbers to govern alone. They're not going to. They are going to involve another party - the Greens - in some form. Not because they have to but because they can.
All this is good news, certainly for the Labour Party which won hands down, for the Greens who got more seats than predicted, and for the country, opting for stability in a time of crisis and being kind. There is no doubt that in the last term Prime Minister Ardern and her colleagues managed the pandemic response exceptionally well and I've no doubt they'll continue to do so. What I am beginning to doubt is their ability to unravel the complex issues they will face during their next term and whether they are brave enough - bold enough - to really do things differently in order to improve outcomes for everyone.
Like all economies around the world we face recession. Those already in poverty will be joined by others. Environmental challenges persist and the dangers of pandemic are ever present. Jacinda Ardern is acknowledged as an excellent communicator - much is made in the profession of her public relations degree from the University of Waikato - and, for the most part, her ministers are also blessed with the ability to engage with New Zealanders and trust them to do the right thing. They have been been brave, bold and resolute in their approach to the three major crises that punctuated their first term in office - the Christchurch terror attack, the White Island volcanic eruption and the onslaught of COVID-19.
My concern is while their reaction to crisis has been excellent, they are not - nor are their advisers - looking hard enough at the network of issues that lie ahead. Their focus seems to be on 'just getting through'. The Green Party produced and communicated ambitious social policies during the election campaign that did address the issues ahead but those policies seem outside Labour's gaze. I sincerely hope for all our sakes, that in next three years those 'in charge' act courageously. That they are radical. That they act differently. I hope beyond hope that they don't keep themselves shackled to the constraints of a pre-COVID world and that they look instead for imaginative and different ways of governing and, in doing so, create a new type of society that takes us forward rather than chains us to the past.
There has been much talk of 'build back better'. I rather think it should be 'build back bold', 'build back brave' or 'build back different' if we are to really solve the issues and leave nobody behind.
We're all in this together. That's what we're told. We stay home and listen to the regurgitation of phrases that have slipped uneasily into use - social distancing, bubbles, reducing transmission - there's a lengthy list. As I write, here in New Zealand, we are thirty minutes away from discovering whether we will stay at Level Four Lockdown or transition to Level Three - described as Level Four but with takeaways. Life has changed. We're all in this together - except, we're not. The inequality that exists in systems worldwide means the lockdown experience varies wildly from mild inconvenience to a matter of life or death.
Global leadership too has varied wildly from country to country. Here, we have the relative sanity of Jacinda Ardern and her public health officials, including the Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield. They communicate well, frequently and clearly. They empathise with the people here, understand the disparity of experience and hardships that ensue. They have done their job - as leaders, they have led, but done so by taking us with them, been part of the collective action rather than imposing instructions. Not everyone is happy, there are still many who balk at the lockdown and I fear all the good work will be undone in thirty minutes if Cabinet caves under pressure from the shouty white male journalists and politicians who seemingly have self-interest at the heart of their existence. They rage mostly in their middle-age spitting fury at boomers and millennials alike but flip-flop daily in their opinions as to the best thing to do. So not all is rosy in this garden but the grass is most definitely greener on our side of the leadership fence.
Overseas, we witness the rambling incoherence of an out-of-control president who apparently has no regard for anyone other than himself - he has that in common with the shouty men here. We see the recovery of bumbling Boris, who saw fit to thank the immigrants (Kiwi included) he said saved his life while he was suffering from COVID-19, brought on by a clinical dose of stupid following his glad-handing of patients and others to prove what a devil-may-care-jolly-good-sort he was. Johnson's convalescence appears to be taking some time and is perhaps an indication of the severity of the disease and the as- yet unresearched and unknown consequences of the illness.
The UK and USA are not alone in their poor leadership and crass management of the pandemic. Brazil, Turkmenistan, Mexico - each have leaders who have positively boiled over with bravado in the face of the virus and now find themselves staring at uncountable deaths and uncomfortable truths. One of the many important questions we have to answer from here onwards is what do we do with leaders who are only interested in power and not people? Extreme political ideology is most frequently used to wield power and control - not provide benefit or fulfil the basic human rights of others.
Jacinda Ardern stands out because she cares. Because she has stated her commitment and responsibility to the well-being of New Zealanders and lives that commitment every day. Emmanuel Macron stands out because he is passionate in his search for equality and the improvement of France and Europe. Angela Merkel - again, a person of integrity who cares deeply and has the intellectual capacity to see a way forward.
Question one for this next era is this - how will we make sure we have leaders who lead, leaders who listen and leaders who will make sure none are left behind as we head towards the new world?
Part of solving that puzzle is making sure leadership communication is at the forefront of any future nominations, appointments or elections. Making sure that even seemingly 'born' leaders are trained in their craft and that those who advise them are of equal skill and ability. Only then will we be able to develop an interdependent society that addresses threats collectively for the betterment of all.
Worse than Boris Johnson clawing his way to power as UK Prime Minister is the news that he has appointed Dominic Cummings as his chief 'special adviser'. If you are unfamiliar with Mr Cummings, he was the mastermind behind the campaign that led to the Brexit referendum result. Previously Mr Cummings had been a special adviser to Michael Gove when he was head of Education in the UK.
Mr Cummings is a very, very smart man. Spend some time reading his blog (particularly this post which he leads with T S Eliot's The Hollow Men) and, if you work in public relations and communication management anywhere in the world, familiarise yourself with some of his views on our work. He has been portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War, which examined how manipulated, misleading and false information was compiled and distributed by the campaign organisers leading ultimately to a referendum result that subsequently tipped the UK into political chaos.
Along with the likes of Steve Bannon, Mr Cummings is intent on breaking systems and remaking society in the image he feels we deserve. His impatience and fractiousness with the conventional machinery of Whitehall seeps into his blog posts and pours into his actions. It is in some ways a justifiable impatience and I would generally agree that impenetrable and established organisations that operate 'for the sake of the system' need to be shaken, changed, improved and modernised but the motivation should be for the betterment of society rather than to prove a point or demonstrate how clever you are.
So why am I fearful? I am fearful because in his public expression of intent, his reformation of the UK's political system is an intellectual exercise motivated by a strong desire to prove he is unequivocally right about pretty much everything. I am fearful because the UK has an unelected, unqualified leader, known for his unruly, unreliable and narcissistic behaviours, who has instructed the machinery of government to be driven by an unelected adviser determined to break systems he abhors. I'm fearful for everyone who lives and works in the UK, for people on the Irish border, for people in Scotland, Wales and England who will have to deal with the disruption and difficulties about to ensue because, as with everything, it will be the people at the food banks who will be most affected by the machinations and applied intellectualism of the elite. It will be the families struggling to stay in their homes who will find the wolf at the door. It will be those seeking refuge and respite who will be pushed away and discarded. And it will be those who truly seek change who will find their way blocked, barricaded and refused as systems are rejigged to ensure power remains with the few at the ongoing expense of the many.
As for good communication, there is little hope of transparent engagement with publics. It will revolve around command and control. It will revolve around constructed communication designed to obfuscate and bewilder. As a journalist Johnson's perspectives waxed and waned entirely on the whim of his paymasters. As a prime minister, being good with words is not enough - ways and means must be found to end the division and nationalistic hatred so adroitly sown by both Johnson and Cummings during their Brexit campaign. A campaign fuelled by data analysis and algorithmic targeting designed to tap into the base emotions of the small minority needed to swing a vote that allowed some to cling to power and some the opportunity to break a system they despise. And I am fearful that the aims and ambitions of these new hollow men revolve around the manufacture of a new, impenetrable elite that values power at any cost.
AN UPDATE: Within 24 hours of Mr Cummings' appointment, Facebook was flooded with ads for the Conservative Party. The ruling party isn't planning for Brexit, it is planning for an election. This is a frighteningly clear example of data targeting being used to identify and exploit the emotional and economic vulnerabilities of marginal groups with a view to manipulating election results in order to retain power.
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.