POST EMERGENCY part 1: We’re still stuck in crisis mode but the emergency has eased

The pandemic has been the biggest emergency the UK has seen in 70 years. More than 160,000 people died but just as many lives were saved through advances in medical science and strong public sector communications. But now the worst of the emergency has passed teams are still stuck in the emergency response loop of long hours, stress and burn-out. This time servicing business as normal. One senior comms officer is wondering if there’s a better way.

by Anonymous

The wheels in local government often turn slow. Over stretched, under resourced and driven by the whims of the government of the day even the simplest decisions can take an age to implement.

Unless you happen to work in comms. Tight deadlines, fast paced and quick turnarounds are what we do.  Tell a comms officer you need it tomorrow and you can consider it done.  Give us a 3pm deadline and we’ll say no problem. It doesn’t matter that we’ve got a million things to do because we’ll perform minor miracles and get it done.

Then COVID happened. Fast was no longer good enough. Deadlines went out of the window. Everything needed to be now, immediate, ready to go before anyone knew what they needed.

With government guidance changing every 10 minutes (sometimes literally) and the public in a panic we became a public information service. Webpages, social media, press releases, videos and more were created within hours and constantly updated.    

Saving lives 24/7

We weren’t saving lives, making PPE or keeping essential shops open but we played our part by keeping the public informed 24/7.  Working 12 hours a day became the norm – 16 and 18 hour days weren’t unusual.   

While government Ministers held daily press conferences and the media ran dramatic news stories, public sector comms officers made sure people got the information and support they needed to stay safe.

Lockdown after lockdown, tiers, local restrictions, roadmaps – whatever the government planned – we were there to make sense of the guidance and to pick up the pieces when things went wrong.

Then came the announcement so many hoped for, not for the first time but hopefully the last, life was finally going to get back to normal. Public sector comms officers can return to the slower pace of tight deadlines and quick turnarounds – or can they? 

Back in the real world it turns out we did such a good job of responding immediately during the pandemic there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do the same now.

The pandemic may officially be over (unless a new variant appears) but for public sector comms officers the pressure continues to build. After all it’s not like comms is difficult, everyone did comms during COVID, anyone can design a poster and social media is something to do in your spare time.

By stepping up and doing the right thing we’ve made a rod for our own backs. And now we need to find a way to live with a COVID defined future for comms.

The author is an experienced communications professional who works in local government.

SURVEY: The pandemic price paid by communicators is revealing itself

Public sector people have paid a bitter price for their role in creating life-saving communications with exhaustion, stress, long hours and damaged mental health, a survey shows.

NHS, police, fire, local and central government PR and communications people all played a pivotal role in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Communicating lockdown and the vaccine the public have relied on messaging crafted and shared by teams.

But 20-months into the emergency the heavy price paid by communicators is becoming clear.

70 per cent of public sector communicators are more stressed than before the pandemic.

56 per cent say their mental health is worse.

42 per cent feel isolated.

41 per cent complain of a lack of leadership in their home government.

39 per cent see verbal abuse weekly.

10 per cent see racist abuse weekly.

However, the survey also shows a positive side with 70 per cent saying they still feel part of a team – a drop of only 4 per cent since the early months of the pandemic.

There is clearly pride in team working needed to communicate lockdowns, vaccines and booster campaigns across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Why keep the survey?

The answer is simple. I was seeing anecdotal evidence of stress, pride in the work and long hours. But without data, this moment of history would be lost. So, the first survey was staged three months into the pandemic in June 2020 and has been repeated quarterly since. Overall, 1,500 public sector communicators have taken part.

For the 5th quarterly survey, more than 340 people took part in October and November 2021.

So, are we all going back to the office?

The picture is split.

Just three per cent have fully returned to the office while seven per cent never left in the first place.

By far the largest group – 41 per cent – are running a hybrid system that splits time between the office and working from home.

Overall, 40 per cent are working from home.

Three times as many people think the working from home process is being handled well compared to those that don’t. Just 15 per cent aren’t impressed with how the process is being carried out.

What are people saying?

“Home working pretty much banned now despite it working extremely well.”

“Lack of equipment means I don’t really want to work from home. Tiny flat makes it impossible.”

How are the longer hours working?

Anecdotally, business as usual has returned on top of COVID-19 messaging leading to 10 per cent of public sector comms people working an extra 10 hours a week.

The long hours are widely reported with some now reporting they’ve deliberately reigned in their hours as the crisis eases.

“It is pure chaos.”

“I’m exhausted after the initial flurry of Covid-reactive communications work and just doing what I can as things settle.”

“I was working over my hours but since our flexi system has been put on hold I am now only working my contracted hours.”

“Working from home makes me work more than usual. I would never have driven back to the office to catch-up on things at 8pm at night.”

How about physical health?

The impact of longer hours and stress has been marked on public sector communicators. More than half – 51 per cent – say that their physical health has worsened. That’s five times as many who report a better physical state.

“I am more overweight and lethargic than pre-pandemic. I cannot find the time or the mental headspace to prioritise good eating and exercise.”

“Since getting back to the office I’ve been cycling and have lost some weight.”

And mental health?

Mental health rates are alarming. For all the public commitments to looking after staff 57 per cent say their mental health has worsened. Some respondents reported the death of loved ones from COVID-19 adding to the pressures.

Talk of burn-out is frequent but the lack of commute is often seen as a positive.

“It’s been among the top three toughest experiences I’ve encountered. The other equally awful experience was the death of my parents.”

“Isolation from colleagues make it harder to manage pressures.”

“Overwhelmed, undervalued and no support.”

If you are monitoring social media you’re exposed to a stream of abuse.

Some people just aren’t seeing the abuse that’s flying around social media. If you’re in a strategic role, central government or a head of comms you’ve often no idea what others are facing.

Run a web search and you’ll find abuse, threats and a nasty undercurrent in racist abuse aimed at organisations.

Overall, the survey showed 39 per cent see abuse weekly aimed at the organisation. That’s twice the rate of those exposed to abuse directly or seeing it aimed at a member of staff.

High profile racist abuse in sport has rightly gathered attention. But such abuse is common and seen by a steady 10 per cent right the way through the pandemic.

Those opposed to vaccines are often behind the abuse, the survey shows.

Police, NHS and councils have seen abuse.

“Everyone hates the cops.”

“Anti-vaxxers aren’t afraid to unleash their venomous rhetoric on the masked majority.”

“Directed at clinical teams mostly who are vaccinating.”

“People feel very angry and hacked off at the world in general.”

COVID-19 COMMS #47: Reminder: National messages delivered in a local voice can have 800 times more reach

And like that, England is back to earnest COVID-19 communications.

Over the last few days, UK Government announced the need to wear masks in shops in England as part of a range of measures. This follows the spotting of the Omnicrom variant of the virus which is suspected to be more virulent.

The emphasis now falls on the public sector to communicate and enforce the new rules.

So, UK Government led the way with this post…

Intrigued to see how the public sector local to me had communicated it. Looking around online they hadn’t.

There was no re-sharing of the Government content.

That in itself isn’t that bad.

I don’t say that because I think wearing a mask to help stop the spread is an appalling infringement of my civil liberties.

I say that because of some research I did earlier on in the pandemic which showed clearly that national messaging at this stage of the pandemic was failing in England.

The numbers then showed an average of two shares for UK Government or England NHS messaging.

Looking at it objectively, post-Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle trust was never quite the same.

However, what has been more successful in being shared was a local voice delivering a national message.

For example, the A&E staff of Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust were featured in a video asking people to observe the rules. How did that fare? Superbly. The content was shared 800 times.

For me, there were three reasons for this.

Firstly, it was video and this content is proven to do well on Facebook.

Secondly, it was delivered in a human voice and a local accent by people who work in the area.

Thirdly, it was given a power-up by comms teams actively sharing it in Facebook groups in Sandwell and West Birmingham.

You can see the video here.

For me, a local delivery of a national message is essential.

The data shows that more people share a message that’s identifiably local to them.

CONFERENCE NOTES: What I learned from #firePRO21

It was #firePRO21 last week, the coming together of fire and rescue communications.

For the first time for 20-months I caught a train and headed to a room where 50-people were in the same room. Weird.

Some reflections here on the two days in Birmingham.

Do the right thing

Whatever your organisation does, there’s a purpose to it. Strip everything away, the purpoise of the RNLI since 1824 is to rescue people in peril at sea regardless of how they got there.

In summer 2020, right wing commentators attacked them for their role in saving the lives of refugees who got into difficulty in the English Channel.

They could have buckled under the political pressure but their sense of direction came from the moral compass that pointed them to do the right thing.

In this case, doing the right thing was pushing back at the critics while staying true to the idea that they were rescuing people at sea.

They were not refugees or migrants. They were people.

Their video illustrated this but the comms team and the senior leadership team, made sure those doing the rescuing were fine with the edit.

We do well to remember this lesson.

Human comms

At the session, I spoke about human comms. For the last few years I’ve blogged examples where the human voice shines through. That is a voice we recognise when we see it.

There is a lesson in everything we do to put human beings at the centre of our communications.

Researching the presentation I was reminded that the idea of the human voice on the web pr-dates what we imagine as conventional social media.

It is an idea that runs through the Cluetrain Manifesto. This revolutionary document was put together on an internet discussion forum that tried to imagine what web 2.0 would look like.

These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.

The Cluetrain Manifesto, 1999

Every organisation should have a dog

Ironically, one of the most human things at #FirePRO21 wasn’t human but a dog.

Digby the dog became an internet sensation when Devon and Somerset Fire & Rescue posted the news story of how their dog helped bring to safety a woman threatening to jump.

Digby is a ‘defuser dog’. In other words, he gets called in when crews return from a particularly stressful job. He defuses the stress. How? Because he’s lovable, friendly and loves people. All of a sudden the stress of the situation is replaced by this lolloping animal.

Paul Compton and Rosalie Fairbairn spoke of the ethical questions they encountered. It’s a great story, but what about the woman? What of the duty of care?

The Samaritans have guidelines for reporting on suicide which they looked to follow.

It made me think that every organisation should have a mascot.

Every organisation should have good internal comms

The theory of internal comms is clear. If you keep your staff informed they’re more likely to deliver.

The 10 hospitals across Northumbria Healthcare NHS is a good match for a fire and rescue service with multiple stations and local loyalties.

A 92 per cent open rate for the key internal bulletins shows the value of filtering out the must know from the nice-to-know.

And some others

Creativity is key.

TikTok is a thing.

People are not robots and they need to recover from crisis moments.

Decent engagement takes time and doesn’t turn on like a tap.

Well done to the FirePRO organising committee. Well done speakers Mark Hadingham, Louise Knox, Ross Wigham, Amanda Coleman, Helen Reynolds, Mandy Pearse Claire Mason and James Morton.

COVID COMMS #46: Winter is here, ready to go again, public sector comms?

Growing up there was a local newspaper sports reporter nicknamed ‘Dave McCliche’ because of his fondness for the same phrases.

With Dave, the picture caption of two footballers would always read how Player A wins the ball ‘despite the close attentions’ of Player B.

In the first weeks of lockdown we had the same emptiness of phrase. Our experience out-stripped our language. We were left grasping for ‘uncertain times’, ‘the new normal’ or even majestically the written phrase ”all this’ *gestures wildly*.’

So, it’s hard to know what phrases to use at the news that there’s a new COVID-19 variant called Omnicron.

Or that warnings that the NHS is at risk of collapse have been dismissed.

Or that parts of the country literally ran out of ambulances.

Or that 150 people a day are still dying of the first variants at a time when people are talking about being in the ‘post-pandemic’ period.

What if people won’t listen?

Talking to people, there’s not just a serious risk of burn-out, burn out is already amongst us. So is walking off the job for the sake of your sanity.

Numbers say, police comms have had it worst, followed by NHS and local government. Fire comms haven’t been in the epicentre but have been drawn into delivering vaccine.

Comms asked to step up again

With another chapter of crisis now facing the UK the public sector are being asked to step back up again. Or before you ay it, did they ever step down?

What’s interesting to me is that for months COVID-19 messaging has all but evaporated. In the tracker survey I’ve been running 65 per cent of public sector communicators in Autumn 2021 recorded that they’ve been sending out less pandemic messaging over the last three months.

No wonder.

There is no way that the level of messaging could be maintained. The cold bath shock of lockdown 1.0 saw 42 per cent of the UK watch Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s address to the nation. For weeks hands, face and space was the messaging shared and reported. But as we grew used to it the message blunted.

Burn out and risk

In Winter 2021, the important questions facing public sector comms are this.

How do we crank back up the messaging that works about hands, face, space, wear a mask, get a jab or a booster?

How do we do all this without breaking what’s left of the people who are communicating these messages?

Because if we break the people who are doing the communicating, what then?

But if we don’t get the message out what then?

What if people won’t listen?

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons.

XMAS CHEER: Christmas ideas for radical comms & PR people

Well, we’re not there yet but we soon will be…. Christmas is coming.

Prior to the pandemic, the focus was on what present to buy and how much turkey you can eat.

In 2020, it was all about bubbles. In 2021, it’s all about shortages.

So, with that in mind, here’s some Christmas present ideas selected for tired, exhausted comms and PR people almost two years into COVID-19 with thousand yard stares and the collective trigger phrase: ‘if you’ve got a minute.’

Thanks to everyone on the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group for the crowdsourced ideas.

‘Meetings That Could Have Been Emails’ – notebook

For those meetings / Zoom / Teams calls that didn’t have to happen this note taking media node is essential.

WTF Notebooks £9.59 plus postage

Channel 4’s social media policy – t-shirt.

The words ‘don’t be a d**k’ were famously one broadcaster’s entire social media policy. It’s great advice.

‘I work in social media everyday I wake up and choose chaos’ – mug

For the social media manager or page admin in your life. Thousand yard stare while drinking your coffee.

Social Media Tea £10.22 + postage

‘Whatever, I’m Still Fabulous’ – notebook

For the meeting when you need to take a book that reminds you it’s not YOU, it’s definitely THEM.

Flamingo Candles £10 + postage

‘Yet Despite the Look On My Face You’re Still Talking’ – mug

Deliver that passive aggressive rejoinder while simultaneously a sip of coffee. Marvellous.

Amazon £8.99 plus postage

‘Please Wait Here Until You Are Useful’ – poster

A poster to brighten your office workspace summer house loft conversion telephone table.

Redbubble £10.02 + postage.

‘The Science of Storytelling: Why Stories Make Us Human, and How to Tell Them Better’ – book by Will Storr

A really good book to improve a key element of your comms skill.

Amazon £8.99 + postage

‘Sort This Nonsense Out’ sticky notes

Perfect devices for leaving a message to yourself or others.

Penny Black – £3 plus postage

‘Greetings from Effing Birds’ – 100 tear-out postcards

“What could be better than than 100 line drawn postcards of birds saying what we’re all thinking at work, but are too polite to say out loud. I heartily recommend.”

Amazon £11.99 + postage

‘Panic as Man Burns Crumpets: The Vanishing World of the Local Journalist’ – book by Roger Lytollis

This book is an essential read for anyone who remembers newspapers as they were (i.e. with staff and readers).

‘The Gift of Not Giving a Single f***’ – pin badge

Deliver your attitude through a lapel badge. Limited edition.

Veronica Dearly – £7.95 + postage

Personalised Facemask

I wonder if you could ask someone to stand in for you with one of these? Just a thought.

Printster £3.99 + postage

‘In The Loop’ – film DVD

Because I will never not include this on a Christmas round-up for PR people.

Amazon DVD £3 + postage

Retro sweet selection

Say: ‘keep going, team’ more than this collection of e-numbers and sugar.

Prezzybox £12.99 + postage


‘Do the F*cking Work: Lowbrow Advice for High-Level Creativity’ – book

I have this on my desk right now. Have you?

Amazon £15.72 + postage

Video Conferencing Blunder Can – set of six

In effect a swear jar for ‘Sorry, I was on mute moments.’

Etsy – £7.99 + postage

Set of six inspiring message pencils

Fab comms tips like ‘Know Your its from your it’s’ as graphite message takers.

Not on the High Street £6

Personalised message ink stamp kit plus ink stamp

Imagine the fun you can have as you make up the text to go on your hand stamp kit. ‘Great work!’, maybe. Or ‘Another set of fine notes to keep’.

Etsy £15.50 + postage

‘Thanks for putting up with my shit’ – chocolate

What better way a clear ‘thanks mate / colleague / boss’ than with this chocolate with a message?

Firebox £9.99 + postage

Grammar Police – guessing game

Just because it’s the holidays their’s no reason that your grammar pedantry need’s to stop.

Amazon – £9.95

Letraset typographic transfers

Back in the days before desk top ink jet printers you were left with two choices. Handwriting or letraset. Relive the 1970s with these transfer letters.

£5.95 + postage

Ideas Meeting tea towel

“Don’t just think about it, say it!”

“F**k off.”

Shop Modern Toss £12 + postage

‘There’s Literally Nobody I Don’t Hate Right Now’ – t-shirt

Wear it with pride.

Redbubble £15.91 + postage

‘F**k This S**t’ enamel badge

For extra direction in life.

Chiswick Gift Company £7 + postage

Thank you

Thank you to contributors who came up with ideas including Debbie Goodland, Eve Hart, Sara Aida Ospino Martinez, Joanne Atkinson Terry, Susan Haigh, Leanne Hughes, Keziah Leary, Jo Walters, Heather Marriott, Anna Hinde, Amy Flo Rutland, Rosalie Fairbairn, Katie Christie, Sasha Watson, Jane Slavin and Hannah Collins.

NEXTDOOR DATA: How influentual is Nextdoor becoming?

Landscape

Nextdoor has been quietly making a mark in communities across the UK. Communicators now need to take a long look at this platform. Lucy Salvage has been comparing the Nextdoor v Twitter data.

Forget Twitter. Nextdoor is the social media platform you didn’t know you needed.

Following on from my previous guest blog post on Nextdoor vs Facebook (April 2021) I’ve been doing some further research into how the newer social plaform compares to our old faithfuls.

We’ve known for a while now that the Twittersphere isn’t once what it was and the OfCom stats prove it. Twitter is the main social media account for only 5% of 16-24 year olds, and the older folks don’t rate it much either, with only 4% of 65+ year olds tweeting on the regs.

Ofcom Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes report 2020/21

But it’s not just about the newest Salt Bae memes and trending famouses for getting ‘cancelled’. I was surprised when the majority of our council audience told us that they mostly used Twitter for keeping up to date with news. Not that surprising I guess, coming from people who choose to follow their local council on social media (we can’t all be as good as @MyDoncaster, we can only dream).

More interesting than that I discovered, was the engagement and reach the poll received compared to similar polls on Facebook and Nextdoor. A not too shabby 8,154 people made up of residents and businesses follow Wealden District Council on Twitter – yet only a measly 19 of them responded to our poll, with 47.4% of them saying that news was the main reason they used Twitter. The post itself received 428 impressions – slightly above average for one of our Twitter posts.

@wealdendistrict on Twitter

I put the same question to our 6,029 Facebook followers. The post reached a pitiful 398 people, and only TWO people responded (and one of those was a member of staff!). Not even Destiny’s Child era Beyonce could entice them to take part – her penance was to be permately deleted from the GIF library.

@wealden on Facebook

But this is more interesting still…

A similar poll put to our Nextdoor audience attracted the attention of 2,392 residents. Even more surprisingly 127 of them took part in the poll and confirmed what Twitter had already alluded to – that our audience loves themselves a bit of news. I was very pleased to see that 48% used Nextdoor predominately for news and alerts, especially seeing as this has been the focus of our strategy for posts to this platform.

Wealden District Council on Nextdoor

What the data says

I’m not sure why I was so surprised at the power of polling on Nextdoor compared to that of Facebook and Twitter, as I have seen many times before on organic posts how it knocks the socks off of both for achieving higher rates of impressions and engagement – certainly for Wealden anyway.

This could be for a lot of reasons, but scoring highly is the fact that Nextdoor want public sector authorities to use its platform, and so they want you do well and get good results. They are the only social media platform I’m aware of that offers a personal service targeted at local councils, police forces, fire services and the NHS. Their pesky algorithm isn’t trying to thwart you at every turn and bury your very important messages. It scores particularly highly with me that you can target audiences at a granular level for free at the click of a button. This is another reason I think our posts do particularly well on Nextdoor – because they arrive unfiltered and uninterrupted directly to the people who need to see them.

Here’s a comparison of some recent posts to our council Facebook, Twitter, and Nextdoor account. The messages were all identical. The only difference being with the one highlighted, that it was only sent to residents of Crowborough and its surrounding areas on Nextdoor and not our entire following. The same post was also shared with Crowborough Community Group on Facebook as well as our own Facebook page, and yet Nextdoor was still able to achieve 186 per cent more impressions than the same Facebook post.

Data: Nextdoor v Twitter v Facebook
DateSubjectFacebook ImpressionsFacebook ReactionsTwitter ImpressionsTwitter LikesNextdoor ImpressionsNextdoor Reactions
3/11/21Household Support Fund1,041420101,6273
3/11/21Covid mobile testing (Crowborough)1,8113513285,1737
29/10/21Firework safety8231233005,40014
29/10/21WDC reception still closed57552,1371
5/10/21Fly tipping appeal10,28021,3432  
10/9/21Open spaces consultation10,2881538512,0102

Wealden District Council – social media reach and engagement comparison

We had just as well not bothered with Twitter. In fact, when putting this table together and seeing the data side by side for the first time, I did wonder why we bother with Twitter at all when the reach and engagement is so poor. We’ve tried threading, and not including links to other sites to appease Twitter’s algorithm, as well of course being strategic with our use of hashtags, but the numbers just never seem to change.  As you’ll also see from the table, there are instances when I have chosen not to post some stories on Twitter at all, as I know full well it won’t perform anywhere near as well as Facebook and Nextdoor.

One thing I can be certain of, is that our audience loves a good fly-tip and any news relating to the possible development of open spaces in the district. Nextdoor may certainly trump Twitter when it comes to the performance of posts on these topics, but where I’m from, Facebook will always knock it out of the park if so much as a crisp packet or brick is out of place.

Time to venture Nextdoor

I’ve seen a lot of posts over the last 18 months from social media managers saying that they’re “thinking” about venturing into Nextdoor, but either haven’t gotten around to it yet, or haven’t been brave enough to test the water. As I mentioned in my previous blog on the subject, I was incredibly sceptical about what it could bring to the social media table. Not often am I happy to be proved wrong, but in this case as a long-time lover of Twitter I will happily state on record that in the workplace, if it were Twitter and Nextdoor face to face in the dance off, I’d be voting for Nextdoor to stay and dance another week leaving Twitter to waltz off into the sunset.

Sadly, this is not a paid for ad, and I am not on any commission with Nextdoor although I probably should be. For anyone who has been unsure up until now, I hope that the data speaks for itself and you’re tempted to dive straight in. Your engagement stats will thank you for it.

Lucy Salvage is Media and Communications Officer at Wealden District Council.

FACEBOOK DATA: How important are Facebook groups? Membership is booming and there’s new tools

People are joining Facebook groups more in 2021 with an astonishing 79 per cent surge in memberships.

That’s the headline stat of a rolling data project I’ve carried out over the past years to look at how one district is embracing the platform.

In October 2021, in Braintree, Essex there are almost 940,000 individual memberships of Facebook groups in the district – up from 521,000 the year before.

In the week where Mark Zuckerburg announced a raft of new tools for Facebook groups this is further evidence of the vitality and importance of groups on then platform.

What is a Facebook group?

A Facebook group is an online community where people with a shared interest can connect. They can be communities of interest that have come together or they can be geographic communities building themselves a space online. Here, a village, town or housing estate can build their own Facebook group.

The trend for groups mirrors an established trend away from the open market of discussion and towards more private walled gardens.

Facebook’s own data from 2020 would suggest that two thirds of all Facebook users use Facebook groups. That figure is likely to have increased.

Admins of Facebook groups are responsible for content and good order and have long been more influential in their community than the local patch newspaper reporter.

What does the data say?

The trend is upwards as the data shows there are more memberships of groups.

For the past five years I’ve collected data from Braintree in Essex a district of 150,000 39 miles from London. Braintree is a new town largely built in the 1960s top house the overspill from the capital. It has the same problems that face other urban areas.

Surrounding the town is a rural district of small towns and villages with the mix of urban and rural making it an ideal mix to study.

Memberships boom in Braintree

In Braintree, Facebook group membership is booming with the 940,000 memberships set against a backdrop of a population of 147,000. That works out as 6.3 memberships per head of population.

Back in 2017, the number of Facebook group memberships was almost half the current number on just less than half a million.

Groups in Braintree can range from the parish noticeboard of the small village group of Little Bardfield Online with 271 members to the 13,000 who belong to the Braintree Hub.

They can also reflect existing networks such as Steeple Bumstead Badminton Club (47 members) or Rayne Neighbourhood Watch (585 members).

They can be self-organised protest groups, such as the Hatfield Peverel Delay and Repay group set-up with 86 frustrated commuters or Parishes Against Incinerator with more than 5,000 members.

Elsewhere, you don’t have to go far to understand the demise of local newspaper small ads. Braintree Sales (4,400 members) is one of dozens of selling sites where people can sell unwanted bikes, pushchairs or guitars. Jobs in Braintree Essex has more than 5,000 members.

Overall, in 2021 the number of groups also rose – by 219 per cent – to 721 across the district.

Pages rise but find it harder to cut through

The study also found that the number of pages had also risen but the 14 per cent increase to 1,128 lags in pace behind groups in the same area.

Facebook data also shows that less page content is being shown in people’s timelines than groups or updates from friends and family. Just 14.3 per cent of your timeline is from pages while 19.3 per cent is from groups and 57 per cent from friends and family.

In short, there are more pages chasing fewer organic slots.

New tools and Facebook groups in the metaverse

A further indication of Facebook’s love affair with groups are the increased number of tools being created for the platform.

Over the past 12-months, the creep of groups has increased as content from groups you don’t follow is being slipped into your timeline if it’s relevant to you and if the group is public.

When I post in the Old Football Grounds group I’m in I end up with related content from other groups.

Facebook announced more tools at the Facebook Communities summit in 2021.

Fundraisers, sponsorship, shops, paid sub-groups and other transactional things have been announced.

But beyond that, groups are also part of the metaverse idea. In a nutshell, this is using technology to share experiences.

“Groups and communities are going to be an important part of the [metaverse] vision. When we can’t be together the metaverse will get us closer.”

Mark Zuckerburg, Facebook Communities Summit 2021

Now, what he metaverse is trying to be and could be is up for discussion but again its a sign of direction of travel that groups are part of the plan.

For me, I can see the functionality making it easier to run events online.

To learn how to better engage with Facebook groups sign-up for the ESSENTIAL COMMS SKILLS BOOSTER programme that shows you this and other skills. More here.

COMMSCAMP: Hello, hybrid conference, I think you’re here to stay

Four hundred tickets for the online conference Commscamp Still At Home went in eight minutes but how did the real event go?

The hard stats are that 45 online sessions across six slots were held over two half-days and more than £1,000 was raised for a good cause.

We had a guest appearance from Jackie Weaver described unprompted to me by three different people as ‘Local Government Royalty.’

Rolling attendances went from a high of 130 at anyone time to a low of 90. This would suggested people dipped in and out. Without the commitment of buying a train ticket they were pulled away so their interaction with the event came through email, the Facebook group or the LinkedIn group.

This means what it means to be an attendee has changed just work has changed.

You can experience the event online or by following the debate on Facebook or read the blogs that emerge.

But overall, what I really, really loved was hearing a new attendee enthusing that she had overcome reservations to pitch a session and had loved it. For me, that’s a big reason for helping run commscamp.

Everyone’s experience is going to be different because the options they pick will be different but I hope the inspiration and new ideas are things they took home.

Online v offline

The last two commscamps have been online.

What’s the advantage? We can reach more people from further afield. For the first time, commscamp had a truly global feel with attendees from New Zealand and the USA.

But running the event also made it easier for people across Britain to attend. Take Sweyn from Orkney Council who has run the tech for the past two years. To be there in person would have meant two days travelling along with the time attending. It would have cost him, too. The cheapest flight is £535 and factor in hotels that’s a big ask.

Am I looking forward to running the event again in-person? Of course I am. There is nothing to beat the bumping into people in the corridor or at the coffee stand. For all its reach online doesn’t have that.

I missed going to the pub at the end to debrief.

Just like the office, online events have proven their worth and I don’t think they’re going back into a box.

So, using the idea of working in public, what would that look like?

Previous experiments

In the past, experiments have seen online being grafted onto an in person event. The pitching at an unconference has been streamed live, for example. There’s even been a camera in a corner of a room during the session but the synch between debate online and in the room has never really worked. The nature of a candid discussion doesn’t lend itself to being live streamed where anyone can see.

So, maybe the hybrid event shouldn’t be a mix of the two but instead be two seperate freestanding events. Maybe on separate days. Maybe on the same day. I don’t know.

Working this out will be the interesting thing.

LONG READ: STRESS, ABUSE AND LIFESAVING RESULTS. The impact of the pandemic on the UK public sector country-by-country and sector-by-stress

So far across the UK, 130,000 people have died and millions of lives have been affected.

It is a story is still being written and the heroes who will populate the story will include doctors, nurses, police and paramedics.

However, through it all public sector communicators have played a massive role from warning and informing to encouraging 90 per cent of the country’s adults to have the COVID-19 jab.

From June 2020, I’ve been running a tracker survey on how the pandemic has been affecting public sector communicators across the UK.

In this post, I’ve taken the chance to go through 19,920 individual responses from 1,660 communicators over a 12-month period.

A tracker survey was run in June and October 2020 and again in January and June 2021. What the data has reveals is a sector that is paying a shocking price for living as a public sector communicator in the biggest pandemic in a hundred years.

Mental and physical health has been damaged by individuals who have gone the extra yard for days, weeks, months and now a timeline that can be measured in years.

Employers, managers and heads of comms should not underestimate the impact of the pandemic on teams. Behind the wall of black windows on a Teams call are people who have performed heroically and some have paid a high price.

This survey hopes to track their successes as well as the prtice they’ve paid.

If you work in the sector scroll down and look sector by sector as well as country by country. While many experiences of working in a pandemic have been shared others have not.

For example, Scotland and Wales have enjoyed a clear sense of direction from their home government. England and Northern Ireland have not.

Police communicators have faced a remorseless barrage of abuse and stress – the highest of any sector.

What is striking is the sense that a sense of working for the common good never collapsed during lockdown 1.0, the summer of eat out to help out, the dark days of lockdown 2.0 and then the easing of measures in Spring and summer 2021.

COUNTRY BY COUNTRY

If the pandemic blighted all parts of the UK it had a different effect for public sector comms in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

In England and Northern Ireland there was a marked feeling of a lack of leadership in the home government. In Ulster, this issue never dropped below 71 per cent while in England the rate was about half.

However, in the devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland there was a clear sense of leadership from their governments. By summer of 2021, just 2.2 per cent complained that the Welsh Assembly had no sense of direction compared to 11.1 per cent in Scotland.

fig 1. A lack of leadership from my home government

ENGLAND: the high sense of a lack of leadership from home government

In England, communicators reported the highest rates issues with home schooling – 43.9 per cent had this as a problem in January 2021. Isolation rates also peaked at this time with 48.1 per cent saying they felt more3 isolated.

Comms teams in England also reported the highest sense of being short staffed peaking at four in ten reporting this in Autumn 2020.

However, a sens eof working for the common good has been maintained at around 70 per cent with a sense of working as a team level at around 50 per cent.

Fig 1: A sense of working for the common good, June 2020 to June 2021 sector by sector

England also reported the worst single rate of worse mental health – 69.5 per cent saying it had deteriorated – in Autumn 2020.

Racist abuse was seen by around 10 per cent of people every week. While the abuse of high-profile footballers leads to a well-deserved campaign and a crackdown by police the same abuse elsewhere online thrives.

SCOTLAND: Most stress, spiralling targeted abuse but a strong sense of working for the common good

Despite a clarity of leadership from devolved Government communicators in the country reported the highest rates of stress and isolation.

Eight in ten by summer 2021 felt more stressed and 61.1 felt more isolated.

That these figures come through when the worst of the pandemic death rate is over suggests a long tail for mental health that deserves to be taken seriously.

Physical health has also been worst amongst comms people in Scotland by summer 2021 with 61 per cent reporting it was worse than before the pandemic.

Racist abuse was lowest in Scotland and never higher than 4.1 per cent of people seeing it aimed at their own organisation. However, around four in 10 in Scotland saw general abuse aimed at their organisation every week. Targeted abuse has risen in Scotland from 2.7 per cent reporting it in summer 2020 compared to 30.5 per cent 12-months on.

What has pulled through comms people from north of the border is a clear sense that they are working for the common good. An impressive 83.3 per cent felt this – 14 points up on England.

Home schooling in Scotland was the most complained about in the UK with a peak of 52.7 per cent raising it as an issue in June 2021.

Leadership from home government was strong with as low as one in 20 complaining of a lack of leadership in June 2020 – compared to a consistent one in every two communicators in England.

WALES: Strong teamwork and a clear sense of direction

Communicators in Wales have been hard hit by the pendemic but the physical impact has been less than other parts of the UK.

The surveys show 37.7 per cent report a worse physical condition amongst comms people from the Principality. Home schooling complaints were registered by around a third a shade lower than other parts of the UK.

There has been a strong sense of leadership from the Welsh Assembly and the best rates of leadership in the UK from people’s organisation.

Teams have generally felt well staffed with the lowest sense of being short staffed at less than a fifth early in the pandemic.

Comms teams in Wales had the strongest sense of teamwork across the UK with as many as two thirds buying into this ethos.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Poor national leadership

The worst guidance of any UK home government is reported loud and clear.

Complaints about this lack of stretegic direction shine through with never less than seven in ten complaining about it throughout the four surveys.

This is hardly surprising given that until early 2021 there was no devolved government.

As a result, Ulster public sector communicators had the lowest sense of working as a team with the figure dwindling to less than a third by summer 2021. By the same point in time, almost eight in 10 said that working in the pandemic was harder than before.

However, Northern Ireland fire, police, local and central government communicators had the lowest sense of isolation amongst comms people with two thirds not reporting it as a problem.

Despite everything, a sense of working for the common good was highest in this country and stands at 85.7 per cent in summer 2021 – 14 per cent ahead of England.

Also a postive, mental health rates were the best in the UK at 57.1 per cent the same as before – almost double that of England and Wales.

SECTOR BY SECTOR

NHS: communicators are most likely to feel they were working for the common good

Communicators in the NHS were the most likely to say they felt they were working from the common good.

From Summer 2020, 81.3 per cent shared this attitude which maintained through the winter before dipping to 73.6 per cent – the highest figures across the public sector.

Fig 1: NHS communicators attitudes through the pandemic

However, stress levels in NHS comms have been the highest in the public sector. In January 2021, 85.3 per cent said they felt more stressed than before the pandemic.

The health sector was also been the most likely to say that it was short staffed. Less than a third felt this at the start and building to almost half of people sharing this view by June 2020.

However, NHS comms people did not report they felt more of a team than other sectors – the level stayed constant at around 50 per cent.

For abuse, the NHS comms team have consistentlty had to deal with the lowest rates of targeted abuse. Never more than seven per cent of staff saw this targeted abuse weekly. They also saw the least racist abuse of the public sector with the peak of 7.8 per cent seeing something weekly coming in January 2021.

Winter saw the toughest time for abuse with 31.2 per cent seeing incoming abuse – the third highest level.

A lack of leadership from the organisation maintained as an issue by around a fifth.

LOCAL GOVERNMENT: communicators were most likely to face abuse

Pity the council comms team as they presented the Public Health face of the pandemic locally.

Theirs has been a thankless task in delivering the messages at a local level and reporting COVID-19 infection rates.

Stress rates have been endemic starting at 67.3 per cent of respondents reporting it in June 2020 before peaking at 85.3 per cent in January the following year.

Isolation has also been reported by nearly half of respondents.

However, the sense of working for the common good has maintained despite it all with around eight out of 10 consistently feeling this sentiment

Fig 2 Local government communicators attitudes during the pandemic

However, abuse has been a problem. The highest rates of abuse were reported in local government during gthe pandemic with around 40 per cent of comms people seeing abuse aimed at the council weekly through the period.

Racist abuse was highest in this sector with a peak of 16.4 per cent seeing such abuse weekly in the autumn of 2020.

CENTRAL GOVERNMENT: comms saw the least racist abuse

Less than one in ten Government communicators saw racist abuse while the sense of working for the common good – at about 60 per cent throughout – was the lowest.

Perhaps, these are unsurprising figures for an organisation which works on more strategic levels.

Fig 2 Central government communicators attitudes during the pandemic

A sense of teamwork was the highest anywhere in the public sector in autumn 2020 with 62.5 per cent agreeing with this sentiment.

However, physical health suffered with around half reporting worse condition and even by summer 2021 60 per cent were still reporting worse mental health.

The worst month for abuse at central government accounts was October 2020 with a spike of 37.5 per cent seeing abuse.

FIRE AND RESCUE: Comms saw the least abuse but stress high

A pandemic has a focus on health which saw fire and rescue comms people stand away from the eye of the storm.

Fire and rescue comms saw the lowest incoming abuse with no reports of abuse aimed at individuals for three surveys. An average of seven per cent of staff saw general abuse aimed at the organisation – an eighth of that facing councils, for example.

Perhaps surprisingly, this sector has seen the worst effect on mental health across 2021 with more than 60 per cent of team members reporting a deterioration.

fig 3: Fire and Rescue comms attitudes during the pandemic

However, this sector did not escape stress. A pandemic affects all parts of society and stress levels were in line with other sectors. Around 60 per cent found their mental health worsening.

POLICE: comms took the brunt during enforcement in stress and abuse

While the NHS may have got the applause in the early months of lockdown 1.0 it fell to police to enforce regulations.

That has proved to be a singularly difficult time to be in law and order.

Police comms have faced the worst abuse online, reported the most stress, felt the most short handed and felt the worst sense of a lack of local leadership from their organisation.

Police also complained of the worst sense of poor leadership from national government with 57.1 agreeing with this sentiment in January 2021.

On top of this they hace the lowest rate of working for the common good – hovering at about 60 per cent through the pandemic.

Almost a third saw abuse weekly – the peak being in January and June 2021 with around 29 per cent seeing it with almost 30 per cent seeing racist abuse weekly from October 2020 to June 2021. That’s four times the amount directed at the NHS.

The numbers are hard reading.

A total of 1,660 responses to surveys in June and October 2020 and January and June 2021 shape the results of this analysis. The study will be continued for as long as the pandemic lasts.

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