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.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending an evening with Dr Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand's Director General of Health who has led the response to COVID-19. He is an exceptional public servant, full of compassion and humility and, to be frank, we are very lucky to have him.
The evening was organised by the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand and the topic in hand was, of course, the communications response to COVID-19 which has also been exceptional.
Many aspects of the response were covered during the course of the evening, including his embarrassment at becoming something of a celebrity here, but the remarks he made around leadership were the ones that have stayed with me. He was asked if he had experienced any moments of self-doubt, particularly when it came to making the call to send New Zealand to Alert Level Four, our 'lockdown' level, earlier in the year.
After a moment's pause he said that yes, of course there were moments when he questioned the actions and potential actions that were to be recommended but that was a necessary part of leadership because it makes you a leader who listens, who collaborates and who works on consensus. He went on to say that leaders who don't listen and don't question the circumstances in which they find themselves are potentially dangerous as they will continue a course of action regardless of its consequences.
Dr Bloomfield unfailingly describes himself as a 'public servant', an echo of more traditional times perhaps, pre-dating the notion of the leader as celebrity. I've always held the view that leadership is entirely about service, inclusion and equity. New Zealand has been one of several places in the world this year to have been fortunate to have leaders - both elected and appointed - who listen. My hope for 2021 is that all countries are able to call on the many people in their midst who are true leaders, who embody the notion of service rather than personal power, and who are genuinely concerned with the health and welfare of their people.
In the meantime, thank you Dr Bloomfield - and every single person in your team of health professionals, communicators, leaders and guides.
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.
Be careful out there - there's a smog of misinformation that's fuelling some ghastly symptoms. China is caught up in an outbreak of a new virus and the symptoms being displayed elsewhere in the world are abhorrent. There's a rise in racist attacks, social media is alight with spurious claim and counter claim and 'official channels' are leaving an information vacuum that shortens the incubation period for conspiracy theorists and online trolls.
The main source of information should be the World Health Organisation but their briefings fluctuate from suggesting the situation is dire to suggesting all is contained. Their video on the virus wasn't terribly helpful and, to be fair, I found it to be a poor explanation of the situation that raised more questions than answers - plus it was a very patronising use of a very un-diverse Doodly-esq type video platform. Given the resources available at WHO, I really think they could have done better and should do better.
A global pandemic has been in the top five risks on the Global Risk Index for a number of years now and we've seen SARS, MERS and Ebola outbreaks since 2000 - so why has the communication around this viral outbreak stalled in such an amateurish way? Leaving questions unanswered creates worry and fear - emotions that are happily pounced on by those who want to further their own xenophobic agenda. WHO states this is a 'novel coronavirus', so it is new, it is relatively early days in the cycle - although the toll for Chinese people has been both considerable and deadly - and they are still piecing together information. All understandable challenges but in communicating the situation, tone should have been addressed as well as content. Tone that demonstrates some compassion for those suffering from the virus. Tone that allays the fears of those who think they might contract the virus and tone that affords some authority to those speaking about the virus.
During our risk and reputation training sessions this month we've tracked the 'spread of information' connected to Novel Coronavirus 2019 and one thing all the workshop participants agreed on was the need to urgently look at their own crisis and risk communication plans.
The other active discussions concerned the societal responsibility of all communicators to allay fears and minimise the chance (risk) of racist attacks. Staying informed, keeping up-to-date with the changing situation so we can advise and communicate risks and issues - all absolutely part of our jobs which, if the last month is anything to go by, are going to get more challenging than ever.
And if you need some help with your risk, reputation and issues management - contact us today and be prepared.
Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash
I've started another blog as part of a training and development undertaking for a client and this week I addressed the lack of leadership and sheer disregard for an emergency situation demonstrated by Australia's leader Scott Morrison.
As Australia burns, he's been off on holiday, reluctantly returning only under media pressure, then off hosting the cricket instead of addressing the out-of-control blazes destroying lives and property - seemingly oblivious to the needs and situation of the thousands of Australians caught in the middle of this horrendous disaster.
I wrote last year about the need for compassion in leadership. Tragically, such compassion appears to be sadly lacking in any of the actions presented by Morrison.
The letter is here if you fancy a read but as an example of how not to manage or lead in a crisis Scott Morrison will be cited as an example for decades to come. And if you find yourself working with a leader like Scott Morrison who is evidently struggling with their role - call me, I'd be delighted to help you develop their understanding as to society and stakeholder expectations and what they need to do, rather than what they need to say. Actions always, always speak louder than words.
Photo by David Clode on Unsplash
We appreciate good leadership. Especially in times of crisis, times of hardship and times of pain - but what does good leadership look like in today's world? A world where leaders can often be harsh, bullying and seemingly take great pleasure insulting those they purport to lead?
I took a look at good leadership when I was honoured to present at 'PR Face Off', Malaysia's international public relations conference held in Kuala Lumpur.
I spoke particularly about the leadership shown by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the time of the Christchurch Terrorist Attack in March this year. During that period of time the world saw a very different display of leadership - one that showed strength through compassion, resolve born of tragedy.
It is rare to see such a visible shift in leadership styles but it was a welcome shift. So many people around the world have been ground down by their leadership, rather than lifted up. Shouted over, rather than being heard.
One of the key elements of public relations practice is developing understanding and a vital part of that understanding is empathy. Crisis plans often a filled with the inherently practical and sadly there are few that look at, or include empathy, kindness, compassion and resilience - yet they should. Any crisis will see emotions run high and for leaders, how they deal with those emotions forms a critical part of their crisis response.
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.