COVID COMMS #10: This is what you need to know right now about recovery comms


The textbook has it that after a crisis we enter the recovery period and we get over it.

Six weeks after COVID-19 lockdown and we’re on a crossroads. Some people have had enough and some people are scared. We’re part emergency part recovery and stuck between the two.

No wonder communicators are wondering which way to turn.

Last night I joined some of those communicators in a Zoom session via the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group on the topic of recovery comms. It was a really useful thought provoking session with some talented people. Here are things that struck me then and afterwards.

There is a textbook

Government has extensive notes on the classic emergency and recovery period. While all of this is unprecedented it’s reassuring there’s some ground rules. But I’ve a feeling we need to be flexible and creative with them. They don’t have all the solutions but in this world that feels as though there are no maps they’re a good starting point.

Some people will be fine with recovery and others won’t

After an emergency, some people who haven’t been affected will want to crack on. Those who have been directly won’t share that point of view.

I was struck by Bridget Aherne’s recollections of a death in service while working in fire and rescue. A firefighter died at an incident she was at. It hit people immediately connected hard. Those not affected thought that a charity fundraiser was a fine idea. Others were just not in the head space of even considering it and it caused friction, she recalled.

Listening to this I was struck by a recent conversations. A WhatsApp group contributor knows 12 people who have died of COVID-19. Just to round it off, she’s also been asked to make six of her team redundant. Recovery to her must sound a sick joke.

You need to help leadership really, really listen

Here’s a story. I used to work for an organisation that used to say that its staff are its greatest asset.  Then, the leader of that organisation went to the local paper to tell the reporter how he was going to make half the staff redundant. Only he hadn’t told the staff.

What larks!

There is absolutely a need for good internal comms but internal comms are only really an extension of really good sensitive leadership that listens to how people are and takes that into account.

So, the organisation that sends an all staff email ordering people to report back to the office first thing Monday is breathtakingly stupid. Your job as comms is to point this out. But your job may also be to provide survey data and focus groups to test the water.

You need to help your organisation have really, really good internal comms

If you’re listening really, really well you can better communicate with your staff really, well.  So, open channels that are truly two way feels like a good idea. Clarity of leadership helps. So is frequent internal comms and  trying new things that you haven’t done before. You’re going to have to be more imaginative than knocking-up a few posters to put up in the foyer of empty offices.

There is a really narrow window for cunning plans

One contributor to the session spoke of his determination to finally introduce a staff Facebook group.

Normally, this would have probably have had to go through countless hoops. But in a time of crisis the IT police have other things on their mind. Like not dying. Right now, as everything up in the air no-one is paying too much attention. Get going before the window closes.

Numbers are important

In peacetime, evaluating what you are doing is important to help show the difference you are making. Shayoni Lynn makes a good point that there is a need to capture numbers during this crisis too. When things calm down they’ll come in handy.

Speaking of which…

A new round of austerity 2.0

Lockdown is costing Government serious wedge. The UK economy is predicted to shrink by 14 per cent in 2020. That’s the largest crash in 300 years and one likely to make 2008 look like a tea party.  Other forecasts are for a 25 per cent shrink. That’s on a par with the post-1918 Depression that sewed the seeds for fascism and the Second World War.

The public sector is in for another kicking. More specifically, local government and everything that isn’t the NHS is going to be in for a shoeing. This could be the most important long-term point.

There is a really narrow window to change habits

While we have been in lockdown, we’ve had to change how we do things. Science says that twenty one days is the minimum for people to get used to something new.

So, what’s the habit that the organisation has been trying for years to change? Remote working? Working flexibly? A library service delivered Amazon-style by post and not books and mortar?

While on the one hand, maxing out on the business objectives while bombs are dropping feels like sending an email telling people that it’s a good day to bury bad news there is actually something in it. But then again.

Pace comes from Government but you need to be the slip fielder anticipating

Deciding when this whole recovery phase begins and ends isn’t in any one person’s gift but the starting pistol is absolutely fired by Government.

Laws to govern lockdown are drawn-up by Government and Parliament. Your chief executive needs to cool their boots and see where 10 Downing Street is heading. But they needs help in anticipating.

Local government communicator Sara Hamilton describes feeling as though she was having to think two weeks ahead of the rest of the organisation at the start of this crisis. That’s a smart. Like a good slip fielder on the cricket pitch, anticipation and being ready is going to be vital.

Shit, the mental health

We have a really good habit in Britain in applauding those we send into battle but when they come back we look the other way. In 2018, there were 60,000 homeless servicemen and rates of PTSD amongst service people are frightening.

I can’t begin to imagine what working in ICU must feel like right now. I have an eye on comms people who have worked 70-hour weeks since this started. Stress was already at almost 70 per cent rates in the public sector even before this.

But I’m not convinced this crisis is entirely textbook

Of course, the standard thing is for a crisis and then recovery and everyone gets on with their lives apart from those whose lives have been shattered.

So far in the UK, 30,000 lives have been shattered. That’s more than who died in the blitz. If you put the coffins of those who have died end to end it will stretch for 42 miles and take two hours driving at hearse speed to get past.

The impact of this will be as profound as anything in my lifetime.

While the discussion is recovery, we’re only through the first peak. There are likely to be more. We’ve had the equivalent of 312 Hillsborough disasters so far. We’re at a stage where only having six of them a day is somehow heralded as success.

If we’re honest, and to use a wartime analogy, we’ve had the worst bombing raid in our lives and some of us are climbing out of the Anderson shelters. But the bombers haven’t gone away and will be back in force. We’re at first peak and history says there will be more.

There is no map.

Anyone expecting to be spoon-fed is in for a shock.

But bright communicators can draw on some basic principles and make an absolute difference.

Thanks to all those who took part in the Public Sector Comms Headspace group Zoom chat.  It made me feel oddly optimistic. 

Picture credit: Documerica / Flickr.




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