SURVEY: How public sector comms people have fared working through the pandemic part 1: the big picture

When the story of the first 12-months of the COVID-19 pandemic is written it will record more than 100,000 dead.

It will also record Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS’ address to the nation.

Nothing will record profound sense of shock and alarm in those first few days in what was the beginning of a long trudge to try and find normality.

Without question the death rate would have been far higher but for public sector communicators who were enlisted into the biggest crisis since World War Two.

But what impact has it had on them?

The price paid

Stress, longer hours, a retreat to working from home and a loss of face-to-face office connections have been what fire, police, NHS, local and central government comms teams have faced.

In July 2020, I started a survey of fire, police, NHS, central and local government communicators which has turned into a rolling tracker that’s captured some of the ebb ands flow.

It reveals the secret price paid by those asked to support those on the frontline.

In many places there is no off switch and burn-out is present. In others, the changes have been welcomed.

Worryingly, it’s a price paid with a tsunami of mental health problems, deteriorating physical health, increased isolation and stress often in the face of a lack of leadership, information and resources.

In this blog post I run through 12-months of figures that are likely to throw a long shadow across the lives of those involved.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Feel like I’m “Living at work” rather than “working from home” – no boundaries between working day and down time.”

 “I have gained a lot from the pandemic so this outweighs the hard times.”

Most say it’s getting easier

At last, in summer 2021 the indicators finally show that working in the pandemic is getting easier. More than 40 per cent gave this positive feedback in the survey. That’s a figure that’s double those who think it is getting harder.

Q: Is working in the pandemic getting easier or harder?

But health continues to suffer

Across the pandemic, mental health and physical health among public sector people has taken a battering.

Worryingly, this isn’t improving.

With physical health, 52 per cent say it has worsened in the most recent survey in April and May 2021. Mental health has also taken a beating with 58 per cent of public sector people reporting deteriorating mental health.

This is the canary in the coalmine for the sector.

Q: Is your mental health getting better or worse?

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working from home gave me more time to exercise at the start and end of the working day.”

With a real national push to care for our wellbeing I have actually worked out more and more consistently since the start of the pandemic than before.

“Less time and motivation to exercise, higher stress.”

“I’ve had a couple of emergency hospital visits due to stress related symptoms. Found myself crying with anxiety and work overload and no real support.”

The positives still hold

Across the pandemic, a consistent three out of four have reported they have felt as though they are working for the common good.

Around half have felt through the last 12-months as though they are part of a team.

Feeling as though you are part of an organisation that has felt valued has been more problematic. In June 2020, 41 per cent reported this but it slipped to a quarter through the remainder of the year rallying again to 40 per cent in May and June 2021.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

 “Had a couple of serious wobbles, but learnt better how to deal with them.”

The negatives remain

The darker side of the coin in working through the pandemic has been the impact on home.

A third have consistently experienced problems with home schooling and a tenth with looking after a loved one.

Stress as spring 2021 turned into summer remains an endemic issue with 74 per cent reporting it as an issue – a four per cent improvement on January 2021.

However, lack of direction has also been a problem.

In April and May 2020, 40 per cent reported this with UK Government and a third reporting the same issue with home governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A lack of leadership from the comms person’s own organisation has improved by five points to 25 per cent.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Lack of support at work and unappreciated in my job, became more apparent during covid. Felt like comms was seen as disposable as we weren’t physically seen as often.”

A lack of resources is biting

Enough tools and staff to do the job has remained a consistent problem with 23 per cent reporting a lack of staff sliding to 36 per cent in the most recent study. This was mirrored by a lack of resources to do the job surging from 24 per cent in 2020 to 38 per cent in April and May 2021.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working in a comms team means you’re often on your own working with services, and not being in the office means you often feel very isolated from the rest of your team. My manager has been absent and I’m struggling to fight to get things taken seriously by upper management and having to stand up to lots of people within the service… and failing to win the arguments a lot of the time. This is one of the biggest impacts on my mental health – but there are so many others.”

Winter was the hardest period

Each period of the pandemic has had its own challenges and problems. The survey showed winter with lockdown 2.0 was the hardest for 45 per cent of public sector comms people. That beat lockdown 1.0 with 26 per cent. Regional lockdowns in the autumn (11 per cent) was third toughest with just four per cent saying the opening months of 2021 were hardest.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“It worsened during the winter 2020/21 but improved as restrictions lifted.”

Q: Which period of the pandemic was hardest?

The working from home dilemma

It’s clear that working from home has been Marmite. Some love some don’t. As we look at how we go back to the office heads of comms and managers need to know that they’ll have people keen on the idea and those who hate it.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working from home is less stressful and tiring than travelling to the office every day. Prefer the peace and quiet to think.”

“Home has merged into office and the boundaries of the working day have disappeared- I feel like the usual 9-5 mon to drive has been replaced with 24/7 and after a year, my mind, body and, dare I say it, passion has wilted away.”

Abuse is rampant

More than 12-months into the pandemic and abuse is worsening.

Those seeing abuse aimed at their fire, council, police, council or government department has risen from 27 per cent seen weekly to 31 per cent. Verbal abuse aimed at individuals has almost doubled from seven to 13 per cent as a weekly incident.

Racist abuse is seen daily by 16 per cent of respondents – that’s up from nine per cent last summer.

The back to business-as-usual mistake

The figures are alarming and they paint a picture which can often be toxic for those enduring it. There is a health penalty to be paid and how to respond to support staff is one of the challenges facing people.

There is anecdotal talk of a big push to normality when there’s nothing to give.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

My mental health has taken an absolute battering, mainly down to the workload. Not we’re coming through the other side of the pandemic all I want to do is rest and reset, but business as usual has kicked back in and the chief is talking about three months of hard work to get the organisation back on track. We haven’t got any more to give.”

In part two, I’ll look at the data country-by-country and also sector by sector.

COMBAT ROCK: How to make a rebuttal: West Midlands Police v The Sun

Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest rebuttal to an inaccurate story by a public sector body.

This week there was an incident in a theatre in Birmingham city centre. Equipment malfunctioned during a performance and there was an explosion backstage. There were no injuries. As a precaution the theatre evacuated.

This translated to this on The Sun newspaper Twitter:

In the old way of doing things there would have been a phone call to the newsdesk. There would have been tooing and frowing and maybe the newspaper would have got round to correcting it.

But probably not.

Instead West Midlands Police took to Twitter with a direct rebuttal within EIGHT minutes:

This is brilliant.

The swift rebuttal was shared more than 400 times within eight hours and The Sun’s tweet just over 30.

The response from the public? Overwhelmingly positive.

If we no longer have to go through the Priesthood of journalists to talk to residents let’s do it and hold inaccurate damaging reporting accountable.

Thanks Emily Dunn for spotting this.

30 days of human comms #25 the Yorkshire motorway police officer and his wife

A while back someone asked what the point of having more than the corporate account was.

Sure, the corporate account can do much but sharing  the sweets and giving the right tools to people on the frontline can be hugely effective. They can post updates on breaking incidents to help keep the traffic moving.

An example of this is the motorway police officer PC Martin Willis captured holding on Superman-style to a van that was about to topple over and roll down an embankment with the driver trapped inside.

It’s by having the tools for the officer to communicate that that the story could be told.

A beautifully human tweet? The cherry was put on top of the cake by the officer’s wife who spoke of how proud she was.

Often police officers can seem remote when they are human beings doing an often difficult job.

Be more human. Like the motorway police officer and his wife.

Thanks to Ben Proctor for spotting this.

SCILLY SEASON: Why we’ll miss Sgt Taylor on the Isles of Scilly Facebook page

Ladies and gentlemen, a period of mourning, please. The internet is over. Switch it off. There’s no more to see.

What has happened? Sgt Colin Taylor has left the Isles of Scilly Police Facebook page.

He has returned to the mainland with his family.

The page, I’m sure will go on, but the man who helped make the page the best public sector social media page has moved on.

If you’ve not come across the page you can find it here.

It is the police Facebook page for the Scilly Islands which can be found off the southern tip of Cornwall.

It’s page describes it thus:

“Like Heartbeat but less frenetic. Policing is like this everywhere but not everywhere is Scilly.”

In numbers, there are less than 3,000 people living on the islands and yet the page drew an audience of more than 50,000. It succeeded quite simply because it was human. Wryly witty and always professional it was clear there was a human behind it. This was why it succeeded.

I have two hopes. Firstly, that whoever takes it on continues in the same spirit but isn’t overawed. And secondly, that Sgt Taylor continues to use social media for his next role in the police. He is worth 500 community police officers.

If you’ve not come across him, he’s also on Twitter here.

This nisn’t messing about on the internet. This is being human and educational so when support is needed, as Sgt Taylor, has said, he could police the island with 50,000 helpers.

Five examples of Isles of Scilly Police public sector social media brilliance

The one when they crowd-sourced the Running Man video

People will look back at 2016 and wonder where there were so many meme videos of police dancing to an obscure dance track.

What started as a joke by one police force spread around the world and when New Zealand bobbies nominated Scilly Police the team there is an example of perfect community engagement crowdsourced support. You can see the video on Facebook here.

scilly7

The one with the ball bearing gun

Did you know the law about guns? I didn’t until I read an account of a conversation with a visitor to the island.

scilly4

The one with the lost property

Ever wondered what happens when cuddly toys go missing? They put out witness appeals.

scilly6

The one with the picture of the harbour

Some places are jst lovely to look at and the Scilly Isles are one of them. So, an operation to fight crime in the harbour has to have an image of the place, doesn’t it?

scilly5

The one where Welsh football fans are reminded where to tinkle

Everyone loves a happy football supporter. But the problem of tinkling revellers is an issue to tackle on Facebook with a gentle reminder.

scilly1

There is a debate that runs that public sector people shouldn’t put themselves into social media. This is cobblers. Of course they should. Being human is one of the traits that public sector people need.

There’s a downside when they move on, sure. Morgan Bowers’ much-missed @walsallwildlife Twitter went from the web when she left Walsall Council. But the fact that there is a hole when people move on shows just what a good job they do. Online and offline.

 

POST CRISIS: Being an informal whistleblower should be part of the job description

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So now ‘Rotherham’ is doomed to enter the lexican of towns long shadowed by failure.

It is a town where 1,400 girls were abused between 1997 and 2013 and where a report pointed the finger of blame for failing to do enough to stop the attacks at Rotherham Borough Council and South Yorkshire Police.

Times journalist Andrew Norfolk who helped expose the story welcomed the council’s recent openness but warned the council’s successors not to be ‘tempted to chase leaks rather than act on their failings.’

This warning isn’t small town politics. It should be taken seriously.

It should echo through the corridors of town halls, police stations and hospitals across the land and the first people to stop and listen should be public sector communicators.

There will always be more bad news to emerge from somewhere in the public sector. It could be a council, a police force or a hospital. That’s life.

Let’s not forget every day lives are saved and changed by the public sector but when things go wrong the public sector is often damned more loudly than the perpetrators of the crime.

So what should public sector PR people do? Two things. First, the strategy.

In the past the default comms strategy was about painting the best picture possible. At worst this was ‘spin’ and at best it was telling the positive stories residents would often not be told of. There were stories of success to tell and investment. There still are in some cases. But after eight years of working in a local government comms team I’m convinced there needs to be a realism and honesty in public sector communications. There needs to be the ‘sorry, we won’t be able to do that anymore and here are the reasons.’

There also needs to be the ‘actually, there’s a problem here and we want to take a look at it. Will you bear with us and help us fix it?’

The feeling is that Rotherham Borough Council by ordering the report and by the resignation of the Leader is now starting to acknowledge the problem.

The strategy for public sector communications should be to listen, to be human and to accept when things go wrong. Do this and you won’t be chasing leaks and you’ll be acting upon failings.

One story from my own life illustrates the culture shift of what is needed. I’m from Stafford. Stafford is where the Mid-Staffs Hospital scandal was centred where hundreds of people suffered because of poor care. When the news broke my Facebook timeline was filled by personal stories shared by people I grew up with that floored me. The mother who had died in pain. The grandfather who was wrongly sent home and never recovered.

A few weeks later I heard two NHS comms people from another area talk dismissively about ‘whinging patients.’ ‘It would have been better,’ I challenged them ‘if some of the whinging patients at Stafford had been listened to. Some of them may still be alive.’

Of course, they accepted that. But back in their office surrounded by the culture of fear and blame I have to ask myself, would they? I’m convinced that it is the role of comms – especially in the public sector- to challenge and be the grit in the oyster. Being an informal whistleblower should be part of the job description in theory. It in practice, though, I know of at least a couple of people whose careers were blighted by objecting too strongly.

One was asked to leave when concerns were raised about an appointment. Another fell foul of their chief executive and had to leave. This all points to the age old concern of public sector communicators to be near the ‘top table.’ In other words close to those making the decisions. A comms professional close to the top table may get sight of the problem earlier and can advise. They also find their words carry more weight.

Of course, it’s fine to challenge if the PR officer is in a position to know what is going on at all times. There are 700 services provided by local government alone. There is no way a comms team can be across all of these areas. Often, when I worked in local government comms office door would fly open after 5pm with an 11th hour request for some help on an issue that was about to hit the papers. My worry is that at this point it is too late.

To learn the lesson of Rotherham public sector communicators should be mindful that glossing away the problem won’t solve the problem. Honesty and openness may be a start.

Creative commns credit 

Rotherham magistrates court sign.


 

SOCIAL TOWN: Using social media to tell a town centre’s story

With Walsall 24 we told the story of what a council did across a borough in 24 hours.

With Walsall Town Centre 100 we’re looking to go a step further and tell a different story.

We want to tell a hundred things about the life of a town centre across seven days from May 17 to 23 2011.

It’s not just about litter getting collected this time. It’s the faces on the market, the people in the shops and what gets done to keep people safe and protect law and order.

In effect it’s the council, the police, businesses and other partners joining forces to tell people what they do. It’s also about letting residents speak with Q&A sessions for key people.

All these factors make up the life of a town centre.

In many ways, Walsall is a typical town. It competes against bigger neighbours in Birmingham and the Merry Hill Shoping Centre in Dudley 14 miles away.

There’s three indoor shopping centres, 400 shops, an 800-year-old market, a circa 1905 Council House, a New Art Gallery, two museums and a 35-acre Arboretum giving a splash of green on the edge of the town centre.

It’s a town with civic pride built on the leather industry and one that was once known as the town of a hundred trades – hence the name of this experiment.

What are the channels?

We’re looking to use the council website walsall.gov.uk, the Walsall police web pages, Twitter, flag up some locations on Foursquare and also keep people informed via Facebook. There’s even geocaching too and a Flickr group to celebrate the beauty of the town.

The purpose is not to use a whole load of web tools just for the sake of it.

It’s to talk to people on a platform they might want to use.

How can you follow it?

You can take a look at three main Twitter accounts as well as the #walsall100 hashtag.

@walsallcouncil from the council.

@walsallpolice from the town’s police force.

@walsalltown from the town centre management team.

There’s also historic updates from @walsalllhcentre.

There’s a web page on it to tell you all about it here.

Why more than one organisation?

Because what happens in an area isn’t just down to one. It’s down to several.

Why use social media?

Because it’s a good platform to communicate and listen.

What will it look like?

If you’ve seen Walsall 24, that was a barrage of information in real time. This is slightly different. There may be a background noise of tweets with more focussed on events this time.

For example, We’re live tweeting a pubwatch meeting, a day on the market and a Friday night with the police on patrol. All this is part of what makes a town centre tick.

What else?

There’s a Peregrine Watch staged by countryside officers, RSPB Walsall and the West Midlands Bird Club, a walk in the Arboretum and other things.

There will also be a chance to ask questions with Q&A sessions.

The full list is here.

Why seven days?

To show all parts of the town centre from Saturday morning shopping to a Friday night on the town to a regular weekday morning.

This is what linked social is about. It’s a range of voices from a range of places with input from residents and shoppers too.

Will there be resources from it?

With Twitter being the live action, we’ll look to pull together Match of the Day-style  highlights with storify.com.

Hats off to the following for their role: Kate Goodall, Jon Burnett, Jo Hunt, Gina Lycett, Darren Caveney, Morgan Bowers, Helen Kindon, Kevin Clements and Stuart Williams.

Pictures:

Peregrine Falcon on Tameway Tower http://yfrog.com/hs90k9j

Walsall images from my Flickr stream http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/

A FACE TO A NAME: Why organisations should be personal in social media


Pic credit:

Light-Hearted

Originally uploaded by fiznatty

There is one truly brilliant thing about Harrogate copper @hotelalpha9 on Twitter.

It’s not the fact PC Ed Rogerson has a truly cool Hawaii Five O sounding name online.

It’s not even because the police are using social media. Although, that is great.

What’s really brilliant, is that he has succeeded in putting a human touch on what is by definition a large organisation.

In North Yorkshire there are 1,500 police officers serving 750,000 people. @hotelalpha9 is able to connect with his beat particular brilliantly.

Here is an example: “Residents of Camwell Terrace – there’s a meeting for you at 10am tomorrow at St Andrews Church. Let’s make your street the best it can be.”

“@annicrosby Hi, I’m following you as I saw you location is ‘Harrogate’. I follow anybody from Harrogate as I want to communicate better.”

“Just dealt with some criminal damage. Paint thrown over a car.”

It’s stuff specific to a small area. It’s in effect hyperlocal blogging for an organisation.

The debate about whether or not police should use digital is a short one (answer: yes).

On that topic there is an inspiring and groundbreaking blog by Chief Inspector Mark Payne of West Midlands Police – on Twitter as @CIPayneWMPolice – that deserves a special mention: Police and social media: Why are we waiting?

But what it really opens up is how best to use this stuff to connect.

By all means have a central presence with a corporate logo on.

However, in Twitter 2.0 shouldn’t we start putting the individual to the fore?

If we call a council, government – or a big company for that matter – you are often met with a name when you ring or write. Why not do that with social media too?

Recently, when Walsall Council contacted a protest group on Facebook an officer set up a dedicated work profile to make contact. It wasn’t a logo. It was a real person that made that connection. On behalf of the council.

So, isn’t there a case the closer we get to an organisation hyperlocal blogging we start allowing the individual to be the organisation’s face? They are in real life over the phone and at other contact points. Why not in social media too?

This may well create new headaches. Would staff be prepared for the potential for brickbats, for example?

How about if they leave?

Then there is the usual ‘what if they say bad things to us?’

But let’s not forget that these dilemmas also apply offline too.

A possible three tier organisational model for Twitter and other social media platforms:

1. THE CORPORATE VOICE WITH NAMED INDIVIDUAL. Eg @anycouncil. Biog: news from Any Council updated by Darren info@any.gov.uk. Content: general tweets.

2. THE SERVICE AREA. Eg @anycouncil_libraries Biog: updated by Kim. Kim@any.gov.uk. Content: niche tweets from a specific service area. More specific info for fans of that subject. Eg author visits, reminders to take out a holiday book.

3. THE HYPERLOCAL INDIVIDUAL Eg @artscentreguy Biog: Bob from Any Arts Centre. Content: More personal updates from an individual first and foremost who just happens y’know to work for a council. Eg. Twitpics of rehearsals, behind the scenes shots and listings info.

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