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.
A long read for you about leadership, liminal spaces and the wood between the worlds. Written earlier this month and sharing it in this space for you.
Space. We can do so much with it. Reshape it. Reinvent it. Explore it. Transform it.
This week, we were able to look up and witness a once-in-a-lifetime meeting in space. The Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn coincided with the December solstice and our solar system’s two greatest worlds were the closest they’ve been to each other in 400 years.
There’s a story about space that stole my heart as a child - The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. Standing tall in its pages is The Wood Between the Worlds, a space that connected different worlds yet was not connected to them. The thresholds to each world in this multiverse were pools of water beneath the trees and the two main characters, Digory and Polly, find themselves in this wood, faced with a choice of worlds to explore to find a cure for Digory’s ailing mother.
In these ember days of 2020, with the pandemic still raging, hope rising and falling in equal measures around the world, we too are in a space in between, approaching the threshold not just of a new year but a new era with an, as yet, indiscernible start date. Like Digory and Polly, we are faced with a choice of worlds and the choice we make could move justice, equity and humanity backwards or forwards.
The Wood Between the Worlds is a liminal space, which anthropologists describe as a threshold between two fixed states in a rite of passage or, by architects, as two spaces connecting threshold and transition. It’s a word from an old world, with Latin roots, but aptly describes our current state. Caught between pre-COVID and post-COVID times, this space creates a new leadership imperative, one that demands deeper understanding and empathy from our leaders in order to create an equitable, transformed space for us to move towards together.
This year, many hours have been spent online - itself a liminal space - discussing what’s now, what’s next and what shape it might take. Scenarios have been explored but still a clear vision of what’s possible - and what is equitable - is needed and that needs good leadership, good communication and good relationships.
As public relations professionals we too must understand this space if we are to help our leaders and society navigate onwards. Old models of leadership no longer fit our space-between-times so leadership styles must transition from the past to styles more suited to the unknown needs of our ultimate destination. We must interpret what this new space demands of us as leaders and the behaviours and actions necessary to help us adapt and ensure nobody is left behind.
Our purpose as public relations professionals is building and sustaining the relationships necessary to maintain a licence to operate. The relationship is at the heart of all we do with its components of trust, satisfaction, loyalty, commitment and mutuality, identified 20 years ago by academics Grunig and Hon. I add reputation to the mix because reputations can be the start or end point for any relationship. The relationship is supported by three other elements, communication, behaviour and understanding - think of the whole as an atom with the relationship the nucleus and the other elements in perpetual motion, essential for success.
Communication - oral, written, visual and experiential - are supported by behaviour, how we interact with our stakeholders, the actions that we take, our ethics and societal contribution along with understanding, the story that we develop, the knowledge we share.
In navigating this transitional space, human relationships must remain the central focus and we must advise our leaders against devolving to the tactical, creating the 'illusion that communication has taken place’. The tragic consequences that ensue when inadequate leadership is matched with poor communication have been thrown into sharp relief this year. We’ve also seen the benefits to society when leadership is itself led by compassion, empathy and service. When people’s health and well-being have been put before profit it has created unexpected and successful transformations yet such a leadership path would have met with criticism and distain in our pre-COVID world.
When Digory and Polly leap into their new world they encounter the Empress Jadis, a terrifying leader who shows them statues of former kings and queens of her world. The first rulers have gentle, kind faces but progressively, the leaders’ faces change, becoming increasingly terrible as they come to value the power they wield rather than the people they serve. All compassion and empathy has gone and only terror remains beneath a sick and dying sun.
Today, in our wood, we've moved from established forms of societal operation across the world towards something very different indeed. At this threshold, we have to decide which world we choose. We must recognise this transitional space and adjust the way we lead to accommodate the emotional, physical, and digital conjunctions people have to contend with as we move towards the next.
Transition has a time lag. Look to the turn of each century and you’ll discover a 15-to-20 year space, a wood between the world of years, a moment before transition truly begins. This year we've hit that change point head on.
The societal, political, economic and technological models that worked in the past won’t work in the future. Change is finite, and, although consistent, every change has a conclusion, while transformation never stops. Managers manage situations and keep things going but leaders guide people to the next phase, showing them hope and possibility. We must help people navigate ‘spaces within spaces’, the most obvious and difficult for many being online.
Physically and mentally the online environment changes the dynamic and authenticity of human communication and action. Reinterpreting the visual and oral communication tools we use online to something that transforms experiential communication and promotes the engagement and proximity we hope for as humans may well be a good starting point given it is our primary transitional tool in an age of isolation.
The new leadership imperative is the navigation of this space. Leading through uncertainty, communicating compassionately the possibility and vision of the next space, guiding the learning we need for tomorrow and evolving the skills we need. In this space where things are not as they were but not yet as they might be, we must be creative and brave. It may need a leap of faith, a courageous step into the unknown but there is, out of tragedy, an opportunity to shape the next space – and shape it well.
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.
Frustrated that I can't fix the big stuff that's gone to custard in the world this year, I've aimed instead to do as many small things as I can on the basis they might help at least one person.
SWITCH is a free training course for those new to public relations and it is a course I've developed to help with the small things - although in training terms it's a big juicy session with a packed 90 minutes of information and insights to help you on your way.
Created to help you move from another sector into public relations - perhaps you've lost your newsroom job or you've found yourself made redundant thanks to COVID-19 - it guides you through all you need to know about public relations - what it is, what it does, working environments, ethics, tech, what you need to learn, what to expect and how to get started.
Find it here and let me know how you get on
In a world turned upside down, how do you develop strategies to navigate uncertain times? How do you develop strategic relationships that will help you survive and thrive in times of global recession? Available early July, our new course, Navigators, gives you the opportunity to find out how.
I've been looking ahead these last few months and, as we have slowly worked our way through lockdowns, dramatic societal change and new ways of operating, I've had the privilege and opportunity to guide fellow practitioners through the twists and turns of strategy development, examining some of the changes we face and how best to meet them.
We must constantly challenge ourselves to explore new approaches and new thinking so we can help our organisations make sense of what's ahead and maintain the relationships they need to maintain their licence to operate. Understanding the process, looking beyond the tactical - the 'sending out stuff' - is critical if our discipline is to remain relevant.
I hope you'll find this guided professional development session both useful and informative. Old rules don't apply - take some time to navigate the new ones.
Unprecedented is a word that's been whipped to death over the last twelve weeks, generally by governments flogging the dead horse of failure as their lame excuse for ineptitude before and during the current pandemic. Unprecedented however, does not excuse unprepared, as it is the duty of all governments to provide and plan for emergencies, protect public health and well-being.
It's a known part of the job. It's the duty of government. It's what they sign up for when they're voted in. When emergencies occur governments must be ready and able to deal with whatever form it takes and it is inexcusable when they don't. There is no excuse good enough to cover the levels of incompetence we've witnessed, particularly when global pandemic has been on the risk index for years.
I found myself questioning whether certain governments around the world should be held accountable on the grounds of criminal negligence, given they've butchered COVID-19 crisis management so badly their people have paid with their lives and livelihoods. I also found myself asking whether charges of criminal negligence could conceivably be extended to include some mainstream media outlets like Fox News in the US or the tabloids in the UK as well as those responsible for communicating government intent.
The definition of criminal negligence varies from country to country but in negligence alone, common factors include a breach of duty which causes the plaintiff to suffer harm. Criminal negligence refers to conduct when a person ignores a known or obvious risk or disregards the safety of others. It involves knowledge of a danger and is more than a mistake or accident.
In the UK, Public Health England declares in its 2020 - 2025 strategic plan that 'our first duty is to keep people safe. Threats from environmental hazards and infectious disease remain great at home and from overseas. We work to prevent risks from materialising and reduce harm when they do. PHE has the capability to respond to emergencies and incidents round the clock, 365 days a year'. Yet in the weeks that have led to 40,000 deaths in the UK (at the time of writing) the politicians were insouciant, dismissive and disdainful of COVID-19 as it began its lethal journey through the kingdom. They were unprepared when they should have been prepared, ignored advice that would have prevented thousands of deaths and continue to offer few solutions or workable strategies to protect their citizens and fulfil their duty as a government. A similar picture has been presented in the USA as the federal government there, led by an obfuscating president, fails in its duty to protect its citizens - the timeline of neglect has been well documented by national and global media outlets and, as with the UK, the daily death toll stands as an indictment of dangerous disregard. Johnson and Trump are not alone - elsewhere in the world, Bolsonaro coughs on his citizens and Belarusian President Lukashenko holds parades to upstage Putin, currently overseeing a Russia where again, citizens are dying in their thousands. Yet, despite the despots, those who actually care - the medical teams, the essential workers, the volunteers, the many brave and wonderful individuals - demonstrate the real meaning of duty as they bring courage and humanity to their work, saving the lives of all around them regardless of the hardship and difficulty they might personally face.
While dictators can lie in their beds and ignore the death and havoc around them, unaccountable to any, there is a chance that the autocrats and the bumblers might be called to account but, supported as they are by pliable mainstream media that push myths and mayhem into the mix, press spokespeople with little understanding of truth or fact, and government communicators who seem to work in apparent contradiction to their published code of conduct, their communications strategies and their duty of care, it is hard to see when anyone might be called to account for the tragedy wrought by their negligence.
Here in New Zealand we've been fortunate to have a government that eschewed strategies that would lead to thousands of deaths and instead, opted to 'go hard and go early' to protect people, work with them to stop transmission of the virus, communicating every step of the way and sticking to the plans. The plans have not been well met by everyone but the success of compassion over chaos sees us moving tentatively towards an easing of restrictions - although acutely aware of entering the 'second wave' danger zone. The government's duty of care and responsibility for the well-being of all New Zealanders was central to its strategy. I, for one, am grateful for their diligence and I weep, helpless, for those who continue to suffer and die because of the negligent.
There's a lot of talk about what's next. Like many others, I have some thoughts. Here they are.
New era (AC19) trust will be the new oil. Success and ability to restart operations will be based on your behaviour throughout pandemic, your redefined operating practices and your (genuine) concern for society and people. Economic structures and ‘success’ will look very different – by necessity. Models from the last century (and the century before) will be redundant with a need to re-focus the way society operates, a rethink of what constitutes ‘value’ and reform of political, societal, economic, environmental and technological activity.
Existing profit-driven economic models have been felled by COVID19 and, as we sink into global depression, recovery to the place often described as ‘business as usual’ is unlikely. There will not be any kind of normal for a long time – any ‘new normal’ is a decade away. There is – and will be – an unwillingness to go back to ‘how it was before’ with its inequities and imbalances. Since March 12, I’ve been urging people to spend the time we stay at home working on shaping what’s next, collectively taking the opportunity to understand and discuss the difference between value and profit (otherwise all that clapping and ‘thank you for your service’ chanting for those who have historically been omitted from any kind of value recognition will be nothing more than empty noise). Walk at least 100 laps around your mind and raise a million ideas for improvement.
Post-pandemic: PR’s first job must be to help turn the confidence curve – as viral transmission rises, so confidence and trust fall. Our job - build confidence and trust so people feel sense of safety just being out and at work. Ultimate test of success – I trust you enough to shake your hand or share a coffee with you or sit beside you and believe that what you say about your breath is true. PR will only have this job to do if it works to its central purpose – build and sustain relationships to maintain licence to operate, and central to relationships are trust, communication, behaviour and understanding.
Expect and plan for micro-localised/nano-economies till feasibility and freedom of personal, national and international travel is ascertained. We will see large scale demise of many sectors between now and 2022 and many will go the way of the dinosaur (including PR and marketing if they don’t renew purpose).
Plan for famine (see locusts swarms, supply chain breakdowns, post first-wave gate price drops, disrupted food production thanks to current droughts and altered weather patterns – e.g. Western USA megadrought in progress – all sitting neatly on top of widespread loss of income). Probably worth planning for war too as there’s an increased likelihood autocrats will start fights over scarce supplies or imagined slights in a bid to distract their national populations from the oncoming crushing depression. On the upside, the potential is there for global and regional interdependency to emerge as countries attempt to rebalance, recover and prepare for resurgence of COVID19 or other pathogenic threat.
In October 2019 all our talk was of sustainability and environment health. Taste for profit over people has waned and formation of a new approach is now a necessity. Emmanuel Macron expressed it well during his recent FT interview when he said (and I paraphrase) ‘we are fighting a disease that suffocates us and, when we recover, people will want to breathe clean air, all the time. They will not want to suffocate and attention must turn to ways we can protect our environment, listen to the earth and avoid finding ourselves in climate catastrophe’.
Smart thinking – one would hope - should make AC19 world fair, just and sustainable but progress will be slow as those ‘with power’ will not want to relinquish it to those currently 'without'. This year’s elections across the globe will reveal whether democracies still live or if they’ve been gerrymandered to death.
All businesses and organisations – small or large – must figure out why they’re relevant, their critical relationships and their degree of trustworthiness. Millions of people have had a fast-track re-education on ‘essentials’ – be they goods, services or people. Same millions are now in a precarious economic situation so even with restoration of their former level of subsistence, there will be a drastic reduction of the constructed consumption levels stimulated from 1980 onwards.
It’s going to be very messy with awful consequences for many people for quite some time. Our job is to ease things, help navigate through the storms, help others build the relationships they need to operate, collaborate and build what’s next. Many people won’t want to change, or indeed, admit a need for change. There will be a reluctance to accept change or adapt to different models (mainly from those for whom existing models are of most benefit by way of power and wealth). There will be friction and fracas but, with some hope, some smart thinking, some kind doing, a recognition and appreciation of true value and a willingness to make life better for every member of our human family, we’ll get there.
Update: This post came together following some comments I made in an online discussion with colleagues. It took on another form a couple of days later when I developed it into an essay for Stephen Waddington's blog which, if you're interested, you can read here.
Image: Danielle Macinnes at Unsplash
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.
There is no more business as usual. Our time periods are now BC-19 (Before Covid-19) and AC-19 (After Covid-19). Our world will slot into those periods as it continues to change at pace and there's a very long way to go before we arrive in AC-19. Saving lives is the right priority and, for those who have one, that means staying home. But while we’re at home, we have a responsibility to think — and think hard about what's next.
The economic and social consequences of the pandemic are far reaching and will be long lasting. We are all finding ways to help our organisations and communities deal with the immediate situation and work out what will constitute the new normal. What will your business, organisation, government — and country — look like in the next three to five years?
It certainly won't operate in the same way organisations have operated for the last 100 years. Where sector capacity has been reduced, for example air travel, it will take time to reinstate that capacity when confidence returns and demand grows — or it may be that both appetite and trust for large volume global travel is reduced so the industry must completely reinvent itself or disappear, a relic of a former age. So too with your own business or activity. None of us are immune. What is it you do now that could be done differently? If you mark today as the first day of the new normal what must you do? What has to be different? What creative approaches do you need to take in order to meet changing demands and needs? What is our new normal going to look like? And in getting there, how will we navigate the change and stay off the rocks?
Our evolution depends on two central relationship elements - trust and confidence. Societal trust and confidence is already shaken and, as we attempt to 'flatten the curve' of transmission, what are we doing to smooth the 'curve of confidence' (illustrated above) so, when people recover and start to gather again, they trust in the society and institutions that emerge from this unprecedented event? As COVID-19 progresses and the case curve flattens, another downward curve occurs as people lose confidence and trust in society, its institutions and organisations. Smoothing the curve upwards will be a work in progress that must continue long after the pandemic has moved through its stages and diminished. The world that emerges will not be the same world that was operating on December 31 2019 or even the world that began when the pandemic was announced. It will be a new world, with a new normal, operating in new and uncertain times. Collectively we will need to reimagine and create that normality for the benefit of all.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a redefining moment for the world. Spread of the disease has been fast and furious and given the rapidity of transmission in the three months since it emerged, we now face lengthy disruptions, with societal, economic and political consequences lasting much longer. Advice from WHO on March 7 2020 in the 'Critical preparedness, readiness and response actions for COVID-19 interim guidance' was as follows:
"Several countries have demonstrated that COVID-19 transmission from one person to another can be slowed or stopped. These actions have saved lives and have provided the rest of the world with more time to prepare for the arrival of COVID-19: to ready emergency response systems; to increase capacity to detect and care for patients; to ensure hospitals have the space, supplies and necessary personnel; and to develop life-saving medical interventions. Every country should urgently take all necessary measures to slow further spread and to avoid that their health systems become overwhelmed due to seriously ill patients with COVID-19. All countries should increase their level of preparedness,alert and response to identify, manage and care for new cases of COVID-19. Countries should prepare to respond to different public health scenarios, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing cases and outbreaks of COVID-19. Each country should assess its risk and rapidly implement the necessary measures at the appropriate scale to reduce both COVID-19 transmission and economic, public and social impacts.”
That was the beginning of March and here we are at the end with some countries failing spectacularly to take the necessary actions to reduce transmission and save lives even though it was in their power to do so. In many places, there has been a failure to recognise risk, acknowledge the problem and act, in others a desperate attempt to cling to old systems that just won't work anymore.
As a trusted public relations and communications advisor to your organisation, you must deal not only with the immediate circumstances but with what's ahead, helping others acknowledge how different life will be. You need to consider the scenarios likely to result from the pandemic and advise on preparedness and potential effects. Never before have borders been closed so promptly, trade and commerce interrupted, countries shut down, freedom of movement restricted or curtailed, citizens surveilled, recorded and monitored. Trillions will be spent helping people to weather the crisis but the reality is that many of the systems we have become accustomed to will disappear and new societal norms will emerge. There will be a process of grief and loss for individuals and their communities.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, was recently quoted as saying: “Some countries have not been communicating well with their populations and creating some confusions in the minds of the populations and risk communication,” adding that “trust between governments and their citizens really does need to come to the centre.”
As public relations and communication professionals, trust is our business, a central factor of the relationships we build. This is our concern and our occupation. How we rebuild societal trust after the first wave of the disease has passed will be a central issue not just for governments but for all types of organisations. Faith in established systems will need to be restored if indeed those systems remain standing. Equally telling will be the speed of reinstatement of freedoms withdrawn as part of preventative measures.
Capacity will have to be rebuilt and demand stimulated in a time of economic instability, financial and emotional hardship along with distrust. We must start planning for the consequences while simultaneously dealing with the outbreak. Bringing contextual intelligence to your organisation is absolutely part of the public relations and communications function and, by addressing and preparing for probable scenarios, restoring stability and encouraging progress will be easier to manage.
Organisations, big and small, private and public sector are rightly concerned about the current situation. For many businesses, the simple question of 'will we make it through' is foremost in their minds as they see doors close for lockdowns, customers vanish, staff made redundant or having to stay at home. Small businesses are particularly at risk and the struggle to stay afloat will be too much for some. For millions of people, work has stopped, businesses have closed and life as they knew it is frozen. For public sector organisations, staffing and continued delivery of service is the challenge with healthcare and essential services being stretched to the limit.
Last year - 2019 - the Edelmen Trust Barometer, an annual research project that monitors and reports on levels of trust in society - announced that 'people have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers. Globally, 75 percent of people trust “my employer” to do what is right, significantly more than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent) and media (47 percent).'
So in this time of need, will that trust in employers be justified? Will employers step up and become the trusted organisation that people are looking for as other societal norms disintegrate? The answer is that some will - and some will not. My hope is that more will step up and act as responsible corporate citizens. Those that do will rely heavily on their social capital, good relationships and effective communication inside and outside their organisation.
Communicating clearly, often and to the right people at the right time will help nudge things forward. George Bernard Shaw's observation that "the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion it has taken place" is worth keeping in mind. It is easy to believe that because you've said something or sent something, everyone knows and understands perfectly. The reality is that even in ‘ordinary’ times people are often in an emotional state, not listening or only half listening, so they misinterpret the information. At present, that state is heightened and layered with many emotions - fear being the most intense. Classic example of this was the commentary on the day the World Health Organisation’s declared a pandemic. Social media posts (many of them) shared the information that 'WHO' had declared a pandemic. Comments were filled with confusion, the most frequent ones proclaiming "I don't know who has declared this - why are you asking me”. The simple abbreviation of the World Health Organisation's name had left people baffled.
I know that, like me, you won’t be surprised by this, yet still, communicators the world over are making assumptions that people know who's who, who's in charge, who's at risk, who to contact or what to do. We must constantly check the information we are sharing can be understood, is relevant, has meaning for our communities and is presented in language they understand. Whatever personal opinions are held, we must make sure that our information is based on available facts rather than opinions, perspectives and personal or political agendas.
Health professionals the world over are working tirelessly to help the sick, develop a vaccine, manage the pandemic and more besides. Others are keeping essential services running, filling the gaps caused by the monumental societal shift that’s occurring right now.
Our challenge — when we are staying at home as we should and not going out — is to work out the ways we will be operating next. What will society look like? How can we make it better? What can we do to contribute? What will our business or organisation do that will be of service to people? Real service, real need - not the fripperies driven by old school newly redundant marketing practices.
Those who have put the relationships critical to their licence to operate at the centre of their activities during BC-19 will be able to smooth the confidence and trust curves faster than most. We will come out of this knowing the things we can (and should) do without as well as a very clear idea as to the organisations and people we want to be with, work with and relate to — because their values are our values. Those who hold profit and power above people will be the dinosaurs of AC-19 as a new, innovative world emerges into air, sea and sky.
The big job in 2021/2 will be to rebuild trust - smooth the confidence curve - so people are willing to begin agin and more into AC19 physically and mentally. It will be a different world and will need human creativity, collaboration and compassion to rebuild.
Let's use this time wisely and figure out how we can make if fair, just and new.
Wherever you are in the world, I wish you well. Stay safe, stay kind, stay informed — and stay home.
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.