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
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
There’s a lot of talk about storytelling, behaviour change, social purpose and what organisations are doing to connect with their ‘target audiences’. Some of the solutions are quite grand, some extraordinarily expensive and some seemingly simple - but none of them are really solutions as they forget to address the most important aspect of any activity - who is it for and why?
Often the activities in questions are actually undertaken for the organisation itself so it can tick the box that says ‘we communicated’ but just sending stuff out doesn’t mean communication has taken place - it means you have sent stuff out.
Before you pick up a pen, start a plan, devise a strategy you have to know the who and why of what you are doing. There is no such thing as ‘the public’ and personally, I believe the description of people as ‘target audiences’ is something that should be consigned to mid-20th century history as a relic from the advertising industry. If you doubt the assertion that 'the public' doesn't exist, take a moment and consider how many different groups of people your organisation interacts with on a daily basis. Are they all the same? No. Do they all hold the same beliefs and interests? No. Do they all interact with you for the same reasons? No. So why would you expect the same story, told in the same way in the one place to engage with them all? You have to break it down and really understand the people who hold your organisation's licence to operate then you can start to plan, share stories, develop connections because there will be real people involved - not just organisational assumption and bias.
We tell stories for people, not at them and there’s a significant difference between ‘communicating to’ and ‘speaking with’ - one approach imposes information on a group while the other seeks to engage.
My mid-winter tip is to warm up your understanding of the people your organisation serves. Undertake regular community audits, build personas, ask for their views. There are many tools out there that make this critically important process much easier than it used to be so explore and play - it will be time very well spent.
Cornwall’s coastline has dominated the world view this week as wealthy nations gather for the G7 summit. We’ve seen photos galore of the great and good touching elbows, wearing masks, and presenting us with platitudes on all manner of issues.
Despite the hard work of the UK’s government communicators to deliver this event during the pandemic, the gathering had something of a hollow ring to it and, when you look at the paperwork, there’s a real disconnect between ideas and delivery. Growing up on the outskirts of East London, the expression my old neighbour would have used for the summit participants would have been ‘all mouth and no trousers’ - which translates to all talk and no action.
From the outset, my heart went out to the people of Cornwall - trying so hard to keep COVID19 at bay but faced with an influx of so many from places raddled by the disease. From the citizen’s perspective, the antics of Boris Johnson and others during the meeting left me frustrated and annoyed as the whole meeting could - and should - have been done virtually.
The cost of the event is enormous. Security is likely to cost NZD$135,883,218 and the whole event will push past NZD$200m. In straightened times, when belts have to be tightened and resources scarce how can such expenditure be justified? Last month, the UK Parliament offered a measly 1% pay rise to the nurses who cared for the country through COVID19. I’m sure a virtual meeting would have saved millions and made possible an improved and more appropriate pay rise.
Then there’s big ideas. Again, the UK communicators have done a great job, carefully preparing statements and papers every step of the way but read them through and you’ll find more platitudes than purpose. Good communication is no substitute for inaction and the likely outcome from the summit, based on past performance, is that it will be all talk and no implementation. It will be interesting to track whether any practical improvements are made by the end of 2021 - or even 2022.
The incongruity of the world’s rich and powerful making a flying visit to the UK in order to eat, drink and talk by the seaside will not have been lost on those watching - perhaps from a COVID bedside, a locked-down household, a TV screen in the unemployment office or a mental health ward.
Let’s hope there were some full and frank discussions among the G7 members and their guests on the duties and responsibilities of leadership and, hopefully, such discussions prompt a refreshed approach. At least it would be a useful outcome and one preferable to the pompous posturing we’ve witnessed at this costly non-event.
Image source and credit - G7 2021 Public Images/David Fisher
Have you ever finished a really good story and found yourself missing the characters? They’ve become your friends, bound to you forever as you have been immersed in their world? I know I have - and I still miss some of them, occasionally re-reading well-worn books just to check in and see if everyone's ok.
Sadly, the same engagement won’t be found in organisational storytelling. Even though we have a proliferation of channels and a multitude of means to tell a good story, they mostly go untold, unread and ignored.
I’ve spent the last six weeks with a variety of organisations working with them on their storytelling, helping their public relations and communications teams overcome some of the frustrations that lock up a good story and prevent their stakeholders from getting to know - and understand - the organisation’s heroes - and occasional villains.
In leadership sessions, authenticity is a prized quality, with the majority of would-be organisational leaders doing their utmost to be as authentic as possible but put them back into the workplace and in an instant, the transformational strengths of transparency, clarity and purpose disappear into the ether in favour of old-fashioned command-and-control. This means the real stories are seldom told, unceremoniously booted out in favour of ‘things we think we should say’ rather than ‘things that actually mean something to stakeholders’.
Organisations - be they government, businesses, charities, schools - default to the provision of information rather than telling the story of who they are and what they do for those they serve. The problem with information is that it is passive, is generally hard to find, it is presented for the organisation and there’s generally a lot of it that is very hard for the ‘outsider’ to piece together.
Stories on the other hand are active. They go walkabout and they are for somebody - designed to help them, connect or engage. Stories explain and create meaning. They show us your world and invite us to build - or maintain - a relationship with you.
My tip of the month is don’t be sitting comfortably churning out information. Reimagine storytelling for your business. Break the information chains that restrict understanding. Show us your characters and how they build your world. Engage me in such a way that I miss your organisation and actively seek you out. Tell me a story that changes my mind, makes me think differently or helps me understand. That’s our job to do - and to do it well.
April is all about words here at PR Knowledge Hub, with a series of sessions throughout the month looking at all aspects of storytelling, writing and language. The quote in the headline comes from Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which takes two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and allows them to play with language and meaning. It’s a heartbreaking romp through the twists and turns of linguistic complexity and one that, if you work with words, you should follow at least once in your life.
Language - the words we choose - help us to make sense of the world around us and, as practitioners, we need to learn to make wise choices when it comes to the words we put to work on behalf of our organisations. Language evolves constantly and the structures that support it - the rules of grammar - shift and bend to accommodate the weight and rate of change.
Words have power. They can wound deeply, be a healing balm, energise the inert or deliver despair - yet often we cast them thoughtlessly into the day, oblivious to the consequences of misuse. In these difficult days, when emotions run high and outrage can be triggered by an errant emoji, all practitioners should make some time to think about the words they choose and how best to use them to build and sustain relationships with their stakeholders and communities.
If you can’t find time to join the sessions, find an hour in your day to consider the way your organisation uses language. Is the tone right - does it need to change? Do you know who you are writing for? Speaking to? Or are you stringing words together to please the boss rather than communicate with others? Check your readability scores and audit your communication channels - are the right words in play or should there be different words at work?
As your stakeholder or a member of your communities I need to understand who you are, what you do and why we need to connect and if you don’t find the right words - I’ve got nothing to go on. If you are interested in joining the sessions you can book with the Public Relations Institute of New Zealand.
After a summer relatively untouched by COVID19, March saw us back in lockdown here in New Zealand and, as the month comes to a close, we mark a year since we first found ourselves staying home and saving lives. It’s been a year when millions died around the world, millions more suffered terribly from the disease itself, and millions of others have had to endure the devastating societal consequences caused by the pandemic.
For the most part, Kiwis have been spared much of the horror. We’ve lost people - 26 families have been bereaved - but the enormity of the pandemic has been largely viewed from afar. Border closures, contact tracing and huge efforts by people working in managed isolation and on the border have meant we’ve been living a pretty ordinary life, free from the ongoing restrictions experienced by people around the world. Our government has managed the whole thing very well, opting for a health response first, and communication has been exceptional.
Sitting here, a year on from March 25 2020, I’ve only praise for our leadership and officials who have put people’s health first and done their very best in the most difficult circumstances. Public relations and communication teams across the country have worked tirelessly to keep everyone informed and engaged. Interesting then when you look at social commentary, mainstream media or catch five minutes of one of the ‘shock jocks’ on the radio - you’d think we had the highest death toll in the world and there’d been no action by government rather than our actual reality of living with some stability despite being in a period of crisis and managed change.
Change - with all its challenges and unfathomables - and particularly forced changed, such as that brought by the pandemic, can trigger grief. Grief for the loss of a loved one. Grief for a job gone, a career shredded, a way of life marked ‘discontinued’. And that’s ok - grief is perhaps the only normal process to be found in these abnormal times. What often makes the hurt harder is the opportunistic behaviour of those seeking to exploit current circumstances for their own ends - something that has happened throughout history but something that gets no easier with time.
Misinformation and disinformation have, unfortunately, formed an ugly alliance, joined in their union by opposition politicians stirring unrest in a bid to stave off their own irrelevance - none of which helps anyone at all. As we pass this milestone on our collective COVID19 journey, there are tragically many headstones to count - thankfully far fewer than anticipated in NZ at the start of the pandemic. There are many problems to be addressed and solved and, in the exhaustion of an ongoing crisis, actual information is not being shared as well as it was initially but, as I’ve said before, every structure is made up of many individuals, all doing their best in the most difficult of circumstances.
Globally, we remain in the grip of the pandemic and I’ve still got my money on reaching 2025 before we see the beginnings of more stable patterns. We know the old patterns have been shattered - a kaleidoscope shaken and the pieces scattered. As public relations and communication practitioners, we need to help people and organisations make sense of it. To do that, we need to listen and learn. Be prepared to shift our perspective and brave enough to be sense makers as we emerge into an unknown era filled with unfamiliar patterns.
At the tail end of Global Ethics Month, here's a recording of the webinar I delivered today looking at algorithms, ethics, chaos and calm. Help yourself to a listen and if you'd like the transcript, just ask.
You'll find some images to illustrate some of the thinking, a few bullet points and a number of animals to suit the mood. Main points covered include the role and responsibilities of public relations and communication professionals in tackling algorithmic bias, some thoughts on how we've arrived at this chaotic point in time, insights into the web's dark patterns and, of course, why we are what we click. Enjoy.
New dawns always brim with hope - the dawn in the picture is from the start of the year when we decided to take a sunrise stroll on the beach. Hope is the magic ingredient that keeps us afloat in the stormy months we've navigated and the stormy months ahead and, although this time of year is generally awash with predictions of what's to come, I thought I'd spend a moment reflecting on how we need to equip ourselves to face the next dawn rather than ruminate on what might be.
There's no magical transition point as the year turns. No moment when all becomes well or difficulties are suddenly resolved. It is, after all, simply a date. But dates give us horizons, give us something to hope for and look towards which is why 2021 has been greeted with relish by so many. We have to remember though that many people around the world count things differently, have different dates of hope so the horizons shift and change, depending on your situation and your perspective.
In the US, for example, many had hoped that the transition to a new year would have seen a shift in focus from November's election to the pandemic that has cut a swath through the lives of so many, reaping havoc and death with little support from those ostensibly in charge. A similar picture can be seen in the UK, struggling under a new strain but also bowed down by the incompetence of its leadership. It doesn't take a fortune teller to divine that life is going to be very hard in the year ahead so what - as professionals charged with making sense of situations for the communities we serve - can we do? What do we need to do in order to smooth the path ahead? Here's five ways we can think beyond the horizon and help others move forward in 2021.
It's very easy to get comfortable, to view the world around us in the same way but we have to remember that change is constant. The pace of change increases during a crisis and a global crisis such as COVID19 sees even greater acceleration and, although humans forget that change is constant, this acceleration is often too much for them to cope with. You might enjoy being a passenger in a car but when the driver takes the speed way beyond the agreed limit, comfort is removed. We can't go into 2021 as we have gone into the years that preceded it and, in writing that, I am mindful that for millions around the world, new year horizons over many decades have been mired in violence, disruption, disease and disadvantage, so the 'entering a new year as never before' is perhaps applicable to the 'richer' nations that have enjoyed the privilege of reasonable social stability until now. As relationship builders and communicators we have to change our position, change our minds and change our behaviours. We have to understand what it is like to walk in someone else's shoes - indeed we need to know what it is like to walk with no shoes. We must develop a deep understanding as to the position of others in relation to our organisations and society. We won't be able to help others navigate what's ahead if we are always looking inside out - we must start looking outside in and determine the connection and relationships points we need to build or improve in order to fulfil whatever purpose is before us. So get out there - do some experiential research. Really get to know and understand your stakeholders and communities. Burst your own bubble (metaphorically if you are sheltering at home) and reach out to others. Be uncomfortable, share their discomfort, then devise strategies to help you coexist and provide comfort.
Changing position helps us to think differently. Ever been 'stuck' writing something or figuring out a thorny problem then gone for a walk that's triggered a eureka moment? If we stay in the same spot, we'll think the same things, stagnate and, ultimately, find ourselves bogged down, unable to move forward. Old thinking isn't going to fix today's problems. Old economic, political and societal models are not going to be appropriate or relevant in the years ahead - so think differently. Devise new ways forward.
If we've changed position and gathered our thoughts we need to share them with others to turn them from ideas into realities that will benefit those around us. In sharing our thoughts and ideas we need to move away from the long-held communication structures that equate information with power and shift into open communication that is clear, authentic and trustworthy. We must develop communication processes that value listening before speaking, discussion rather than instruction, collaboration rather than conflict. If we continue with the 'speak, instruct, conflict' model of authoritarian communication that has become so prevalent in recent years we will be on the road to nowhere, the horizon increasingly obscured. Our job - and it is an urgent job - is to help our organisations change their approach and show them how to communicate openly.
Be constantly curious
Two great ways to learn fast are making mistakes and asking great questions. It is inevitable that we will all make huge mistakes in the year ahead and my hope for you is that your mistakes are manageable ones. By thinking first - and I've always said the thinking we do takes the most time - the mistakes should be minimal, so think well and think beyond the now. Committing yourself to learning is to be constantly curious. It means asking the seemingly obvious question, asking the hard questions and asking the questions that will increase your knowledge and develop your understanding. There is always something new to learn and when we are exploring uncharted territory we will inevitably encounter things we don't know or have not experienced before - so be prepared to learn, learn fast and learn something new every day for the rest of your life.
I've been asked many times what is the most important characteristic or capability for a public relations or communications professional and my answer is always the same - courage. Having the courage to ask the hard questions, take a different position, think creatively and learn from mistakes is essential if we are to do our jobs ethically and well. In our world of constant change, the need for courage is a constant. It takes courage to challenge your boss over bad practice when you know that doing so could mean no job at all but it's got to be done, especially if the resulting change reduces inequity and restores trust. Bravery confronts danger without fear - courage confronts danger despite the fear.
There's a final thought for you before I end - take heart, stay hopeful and act with compassion. There's much difficulty and danger to be confronted in the world but there is also much goodness and generosity. We've seen it in the selfless work of medical staff and carers around the world, we've seen it in the support people have given to each other, be that physical support with food or simply a long phone call to listen to their fears. As you confront the challenges, remember to draw strength from that goodness and look boldly towards and beyond the horizon.
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.
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.