speaking like a leader
Late last month, Aotearoa's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern went the USA to give the commencement speech at Harvard. It was much reported here and overseas and. as part of this month's speechwriting session, I included a few highlights from the address which you can watch in full on YouTube.
Prime Minister Ardern has always delivered good speeches. They are engaging, directed to the people in the room, carry a point, include anecdotes - all the relevant ingredients that make a speech work. The difference with PM Ardern - perhaps even her secret ingredient - is her tone. Sadly we have become used to the shrill and shrieking speeches of Donald Trump these past years with other leaders emulating his delivery (goodness knows why). The constant conflict and aggression central to his delivery is deliberate - designed to suggest power and control. It doesn't demonstrate leadership or suggest any dignity at all. Prime Minister Ardern is, thankfully, the polar opposite and her delivery is such that nobody feels 'left behind' by her words or forced into conflict or anger. That doesn't mean that her speeches don't invite change, or a different perspective. Instead, they support her leadership, vision and care for those she encounters.
And that's the secret of a good speech. The tone and delivery are as important as the spoken words. They highlight the ideas, frame the concepts - invite people to listen, stay listening and remember what was said.
A good speechwriter will write for those who will listen - and those who will speak. It takes practice, planning and care and a genuine concern for both people and place.
strategy or tactics? make your move
It's been strategy and evaluation week here at PR Knowledge Hub and during the daily sessions delegates have spoken at length about the challenges they face in their organisations. Very often, the same problem surfaces - practitioners pushed into the tactical, reacting or being 'ordered' to do something rather than guiding the organisational actions and working to a clear strategy.
This fundamental problem always sees me turn to a quote attributed to George Bernard Shaw - 'the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion it has taken place'.
Time and again, organisations (of all types) believe that by sending out stuff - be it media releases, social media updates, newletters and all the other forms 'stuff' takes - they have effectively communicated with 'the public'. They fail to realise that 'the public' as an individual entity doesn't' exist and that the 'stuff' they are sending won't be seen, heard, read or reacted to. Why? Because it is a tactical response. Because the 'stuff' isn't tied to outcomes. Because there is no strategy in place.
All public relations and communication programmes should be part of an overarching strategy that supports the business or organisational outcomes. Public relations strategies should be concerned with the relationships, the licence to operate, the ethical behaviours of the organisation - which is a long way away from simply actioning a list of stuff to send out.
Practitioners must make the move from tacticians to strategists. In old-fashioned organisations with entrenched hierarchical leadership this can be a hard move to make - and if you are finding it tough, give me a call. I've a course that's perfect for you.
learning to unlearn
I am unashamedly a life-long learner. There is something new to learn every day and I have always been grateful that I work in a sector where change is the norm, things develop at pace and minds must be kept open in order to give best advice. But that doesn't mean it is easy. My new best friends - pictured above - have been extremely supportive over the last few (difficult) weeks as I have had to learn to walk again.
Unlearning something that has been an instinctive part of your life for decades is no easy thing. Again, my gratitude is immense for the skill and knowledge of the surgeons and doctors but rehabilitation is hard - mostly because of the 'unlearning' then 'relearning' that's required.
As I've been forced to take things slowly I've been contemplating what other things we should consider relearning even when the thought of doing so seems impossible. The pandemic has led to all sorts of calls for change - we've had building back better, we've had building back to normal - the noise has been immense and not necessarily constructive.
What if, instead of trying to make things as they once were, we took the opportunity to reinvent things completely? We unlearned the behaviours that led to so much inequity? We unlearned the bad communication behaviours and instead, learnt to move forward with greater compassion and care for our fellow humans?
Sadly, there isn't much evidence of unlearning going on in the world at the moment and the entrenched behaviours designed to support power and wealth persist - as always to the detriment of the majority.
Running a learning organisation, I've taken this opportunity - as I relearn to walk - to consider and study the areas of our profession we should unlearn so we can equip ourselves to make real progress in the future. Sometimes we have to stop before we can truly start again.
fight for facts amid the fake
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.
wishing you a covid-free christmas
It’s been quite the year. We’ve been in and out of lockdown, Auckland and Northland have had weathered more restrictions than most and it would be fair to say everyone is feeling a little worn out by it all.
There’s been some resistance to the shift from the initial alert level system to the ‘traffic light’ system and, as we head towards Christmas, public health communication has become a little scrappier.
I find myself baffled by the easing of restrictions elsewhere in the world, particularly as new variants emerge and infection rates spike and I genuinely hope that the initial clarity of communication we experienced here in Aotearoa returns so people continue to understand the vital part they play in the protection of others.
That said, I hope that everyone who has been working so very hard throughout the pandemic has the opportunity to rest and recharge in the weeks ahead, take a breath and enjoy the summer. Thank you for all you do - and Happy (hopefully COVID-free) Christmas.
action your analytics
It’s a rare thing to find a practitioner who gets to grips with data and yet it is a highly valued skill. Using available data to inform strategy and implementation might seem obvious but it is an every day action that unfortunately is often ignored.
Those who regularly collate and curate data will know that Google Analytics is in the process of change at the moment with GA4 now available and touted by Google as ‘a new property designed for the future of measurement’. It collects both website and app data and has enhanced privacy controls and better predictive capabilities.
You can find out more details here and it is worth noting that ‘old’ versions will stop collecting data in July 2023.
So don't be a stranger to data - take note of the change, ask your organisation how they are managing the shift and explore the insights your data can reveal.
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
A whole new level for COVID Comms
Here we are again - level four lockdown as the Delta strain arrives in New Zealand. A hard job lies ahead for the Government this time around. Last time when the whole country went into lockdown there was shock, there was uncertainty, there was denial - but there was a willingness to listen to what Jacinda Ardern and her ministers had to say.
This time, everyone is tired. Everyone thinks they know what to do or has an opinion on what should be done. There is less willingness to listen and certainly less willingness to comply.
Communicating in a crisis is hard and exhausting. Maintaining crisis communication over months and years and hitting the right tone to address current sentiment is a huge ask - and you can see the weariness etched on the faces at the podium pandemic press conferences.
It's going to be hard to hold their nerve and even harder to control the virus, keep people informed and maintain the high levels of trust experienced to date. Mask up, stay safe, take care - and listen hard. It might make all the difference.
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
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.