A YEAR? How public sector comms people look back at 12-months of COVID-19

‘This is my truth,’ NHS founder Aneurin Bevan’s widow recalled him saying to people, ‘tell me yours.

Truth is, there is no universal truth of the first 12-months of the pandemic. Our experience differs. For some, a welcome break working from home. For others, grief or a fight for health.

It got me thinking. How have public sector comms people fared? I asked members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group for their thoughts.

On March 23 2020, the UK Prime Minister announced the widest set of restrictions on personal freedom in living memory. It’s hard to recreate the shock of it and since then things changed.

Can you sum-up the last 12-months in four words?

“You are on mute.” – Mark Chapman.

“Relentless change and challenges.” – Suzie Evans

“What a fucking rollercoaster,” – Sarah Tidy.

“I am not thriving,” – Kelly Harrison.

“Hardest of my life.” – Lucy Salvage.

“Frustration, exhaustion, revelation, gratitude.” Lucy Hartley

“Legacy hand?” – Jon Phillips

“Emotional, frustrating, proud, enlightening.” – Laura Broster

“Bleak, tiring, uphill, love.” – Angela Maher.

“I’m ok with change.” – Joy Hale.

“Keep swimming through currents.” – Kirstin Catriona Thomson

“Relentless. Exhausting. Camaraderie and Gratitude (and quizzes!)” – Emma Russell.

What was a personal positive moment of the last 12-months?

“Having a warm, loving household.” – Suzie Evans

“No commute, absolutely brilliant.” – Stephen Wilkinson.

“I absolutely love homeworking.” – Clare Parker.

“Incredible commitment, resilience and talent of countywide partners working together to do great things in comms and elsewhere.” – Thom Burn.

“Volunteering at the Vacc Centre seeing happy, dancing Octogenarians.” – Marie Lewis.

“Learning to sew and play piano.” – Carolyne Mitchell

“Getting much closer with my partner, being home together more could have been rocky, and I know others haven’t been so lucky, but I’m so thankful we had each other through the highs and lows.” – Jennifer Ann Bracegirdle.

“Getting to spend time at home with my teenage daughter and the birth of my niece.” – Ghazala Begum.

“Seeing my dad get a vaccine.” – David Grindlay.

“Joining my family for the first time in months for a BBQ on the beach. Feeling the warmth on our faces and remembering what it felt like to be in their company and how much we had missed. And now I remember that, and that it will happen again.” – Emma Russell.

“Getting a promotion and having that first hug off my niece when we were allowed.” – Ceri Doyle.

“How much I’ve valued and love my partner and my two girls.” – Nicola Fulton.

“Hugging my Dad for the first time when we were finally allowed to form bubbles. And getting our puppy.” – Jennifer Kightley

What was a personal bleak moment of the last 12-months?

“Grandmother’s funeral.” – Andrew Clayton.

“Not seeing my dad for a year and him missing kids birthdays and Xmas.” – Leanne Hughes.

“My grandad passing away at what felt like the most stressful point in my memory, end of March 2020, however it did make me stop for a weekend and step back to process everything around me.” – Jennifer Ann Bracegirdle.

“Watching my child break down because everything is ‘weird and feels bad,'” – Kelly Harrison

“Not seeing a single person I knew face to face for 6 weeks something others won’t even be able to imagine but reality for those of us wfh who live alone.” – Ceri Doyle

“Losing one of this group to COVID. It really affected my patience – for a few days there I lost any ability to tolerate deniers/rule breakers and the ‘but they were old/already sick’ brigade, grrrrr…..” – Beck McAuliffe

“Worry about the long term impact on my daughters mental health, wellbeing and education.” – Ghazala Begum.

“My cousin hung himself in April 2020.” – Anonymous.

“Missing the birth of my second son when there was a flight ban at the start of the pandemic and not seeing my mum for a year now.” – Mark Templeton.

“Losing my voice through stress for four months.” – Joanne Cooke.

“Personal tragedy aside, having to concede defeat and take time off from work for my mental health.” – Lucy Salvage

“Realising that although day-by-day, hour-by-hour I feel absolutely fine, just below the surface the isolation, the pressure, the long hours, the dark nights, the missing family and friends, the worry, the constant covid- anxiety, the funerals we couldn’t attend, the weddings cancelled, the hospital appointments done alone, the elderly relatives giving up because their life has stopped… well it really does take its toll, that and the daily annoyance that still my job is referred to as ‘making pretty things and jazzing stuff up’.” – Emma Russell.

“My husband’s friend died of Covid leaving a widow and young child.” – Angela Maher.

“My Mum’s tears at not seeing her grandchildren for months.” – Marie Lewis.

Homeworking? Back to the office? Or a mix?

“Discovered working from home suits me, but I need to go to the office too ~ 70:30?” – Lucy Hartley.

“Both – and the trust to be able to chose which works best for me, my job and my team at that given time. But I really do miss seeing my wonderful colleagues.” – Emma Russell.

“Homeworking, with some friends house working and the odd office touch-down.” – Carolyne Mitchell.

“Keep me home working. Love it.” – Clare Parker.

“Definitely a mix, I miss homeworking days when I needed time out from meets to focus and I miss office times with colleagues to be creative and group think through the troublesome, sticky issues properly.” – Laura Broster.

“Mix but more at home to hang out with bandit-dawg.” – Leanne Hughes.

“Working from a very quiet office is better for me than being at home.” Nicola Fulton

“Homeworking is finally acceptable.” – Brioney Hirst.

Thank you to contributors Andrew Clayton, Mark Chapman, Suzie Evans, Thom Burn, Sarah Tidy, Kelly Harrison, Ghazala Begum, Lucy Salvage, Jon Phillips, Stephen Wilkinson, Emma Russell, Marie Lewis, Carolyne Mitchell, David Grindlay, Laura Broster, Angela Maher, Leanne Hughes, Jennifer Ann Bracegirdle, Beck McAuliffe, Clare Parker, Joanne Cooke, Ceri Doyle, Nicola Fulton, Brioney Hirst, Jenny Kightley, Kirstin Catriona Thomson, Amanda Rose, Charlotte Parker, Mark Templeton and Joy Hale.

This is their truth, tell me yours.

LONG READ: Celebrating the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group and its 5,000 amazing members

Of all the things I’ve helped build online the one that has given me most joy is this… a walled garden for public sector comms people.

It’s called the Public Sector Comms Headspace and it’s a Facebook group that’s reached its 5,000th member.

Built through word-of-mouth it makes me smile and teaches me something new daily

There’s no membership fee, no charges and no adverts to watch. Its value is the generosity of those who contribute to it

On the one level, the group can be judged by statistics but it’s more than that.

What the numbers say

The Headspace group insights over the past 28 days show an incredible 400 posts in the last 28 days, an astounding 4,785 comments and a staggering 17,648 interactions.

On any given day over the past 28 days, a minimum of 3,000 people directly engage with it rising to 4,400 on a busy day. That’s 88 per cent.

I’m going to push the boat out and say this is the most engaging and engaged corner of the internet concerned with PR and communications public sector or otherwise.

Group insights are handy

One good thing about Facebook is the piles of insights.

As an admin, I can tell you that Thursday 7pm is the busiest time of the week.

All this points to why we’ve run Zoom chats with topics around that time over the summer. Promote within the group and chat across on the video conferencing platform,.

What the group posts

When I first set-up the group, I thought shared links would work best. Actually that’s not been the case. Navigating across to the group writing this, I can see the topics.

Anybody here from the North East to share lockdown comms assets?

I’m just looking to pick peoples brains about social media scheduling services.

Another accessibility question: footnotes in accessible PDF documents for web. How are you fixing these please?

Hello everyone, seeking some info from anyone who is using WhatsApp groups.

It’s a typical spread and it makes me think of when I first started using social media and found fellow-travellers.

Social PR has changed

The social web of today is a different place to when I started in 2008. Then, Twitter connected PR people to share ideas. That’s evolved. There’s still a PR community there but people are far more guarded, there’s more selling and there’s a lack of new voices.

The drift from public spaces to private isn’t something new. The Headspace group and other Facebook groups are absolutely an example of this shift. Where do I get most value? From closed Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

It would not be an overstatement to say this group makes me a better communicator. And on days when I think I hate my job, this group makes me realise that I don’t, I love it… people in this group just get it.

Sara Hamilton, Headspace member.

Why a Facebook group?

Four years ago, I set the group up as an experiment to learn how groups work. It took two minutes to set up. At first, it was bringing people I liked from Twitter to a safer space. But it quickly became a space for others.

If you want an online community to grow you need to wake up in the morning wondering how you can make it grow that day. Encouraging others and encouraging discussion. This isn’t about the you, it’s about the us.

Have some ground rules. Nothing too overbearing. Chatham House rule. Don’t share outside the group without permission and not to poke fun at the bad because tomorrow it might be you. That’s actually been quite handy. If people are feeling bad because something they’ve been involved with has gone wrong, the last thing you need are your peers mocking you.

Support is the key.

So to is a range of job titles. If you work in the public sector you can come in. So, we have a range from marketing, IT, consultation assistants, officers, managers ands heads of comms.

Not being alone

When I started out in comms I was in a team of one with major imposter syndrome and no time to get formal training. The Headspace group was a lifesaver, allowing me to test ideas and ask questions, borrow concepts, and through that learn the language and develop myself.

In addition it was – and still is – a place where I know I am not alone.

Will Lodge, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

The enduring value has been for people after a bad day or when they’re struggling to come and realise there’s other people.

One early example stays with me.

Without naming names, a member had had a bad day and had been told by someone senior that what was wanted was a logo and not just any old logo. They weanted a logo of a butterfly made with human ears.

Like some Vietnam-era war crime the proposed logo was shared to a gasp of astonishment. But where the value came was in the replies. A set of suggested strategies emerged to deal with the problem without resorting to hard liquor or a handgun. The advice was made. The ear logo was averted.

I knew the group would work.

On adding dog and cat pictures

Style points have evolved. It’s okay to ask a fairly run-of-the-mill question so long as you add a picture of an animal.

Like this pic of Christina Staniforth’s dog Alfie.

Would you just look at that doggo.

‘A professional lifeline’

I love headspace because it’s a truly welcoming, non judgemental space. Very practical, genuinely supportive and a professional lifeline for me, as a sole comms worker in a multi disciplinary team. Seek and you shall find.

– Leanne Hughes, Public Sector Comms Headspace member.

A lot of the questions posed in the group are routine. That’s fine. Asking where the artwork can be found for a national campaign is may not move the innovation dial but if it means saving half an hour of faff then its worthwhile.

In an era of lockdown, remote working being alone together has value and I’m glad that the regular questions get asked as well as the big picture ones.

As an admin get help

As an admin, you’re a gatekeeper. It’s up to you who to let into the group. You set the rules and you have to allow each one in.

Because we limit the group to in-house public sector people we check everyone’s credentials online. A quarter of those who ask don’t get in.

At the height of Cummings going to Barnard Castle things got quite tense. We switched to a process where we had to approve posts. This had the added benefit of allowing us to weed out the duplicate posts.

David Grindlay is also an admin. His enthusiasm and energy has played a massive role.

Over the past three years I am gobsmacked at how helpful, friendly and downright lovely a Facebook group can be (based on the usual mix you get). Now at 5000 connected folk, we are the equivalent of a small town – and the best thing is, you all made it the success it is. Thanks for that (and please use the files section and the search function X.)

David Grindlay, Public Sector Comms Headspace co-admin

In the four years of the group, I can count on the fingers of one hand we’ve had to make decisive. Bear in mind the tens of thousands of posts that’s not such a bad return.

Share the disasters

Years ago, someone bold at a conference presented all that went wrong with her project rather than the glossy version. It was bold, fun and the audience learned lots. I’ve never seen that approach again in public.

The walled garden of the Headspace group has encouraged people to open up in a more trusting environment.

I really like the way the people generously share good practice, as well as triumphs and disasters. It’s a great space to get advice, support, acknowledgment and a have a wee rant in a safe supportive space. It’s a home of best practice and best pals…Life without Headspace would be a dull, less informed and a more frustrated place.

Jane Stork, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

Get different perspectives

The strength of a team can be people pulling together but its weakness can be everyone does things the same way.

The value of a broad group has been to get diofferent perspectives whether that be from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia, the USA or New Zealand.

Or from people who don’t work directly in comms.

What I get from being a member of Headspace? Context and perspective and lots of funny jokes, and grammar pedantry. My role is a strange one, for someone mostly in IT, and it is good to be among people who also have a corporate-wide ambit, an ambition to be recognised as “professional”, but who have to battle to have their contributions valued, accepted and NOT undermined (deliberately or otherwise.

Sweyn Hunter, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

Share to save time

Back when social media was knew there’s a perception that it is a one-way street of timewasting. Sometimes that view persists. But by asking a question of a group it is possible to get an answer that will trim hours and days off your to-do list.

I’ve found it hugely helpful to have access to Devon’s accessibility content, which has saved us a massive amount of work. We’ve been able to re-purpose the content to fit and haven’t needed to re-invent the wheel. It’s helped us come on leaps and bounds with our guidance for staff, which we were struggling to find time for.

John Day, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

The group is one of my go-to places online when I need advice, information and support from fellow public sector comms pros. Whether I’m just looking for sympathy or a fully-fledged strategic response, there’s usually someone in the community of brilliant, dedicated, underappreciated and often very funny people who is more than willing to help.

Mark Roberts, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

Understanding, camaraderie, friendship and excellent advice and information. Feeling good or bad – the group is there for you.

Kate Pratt, Public Sector Comms Headspace member

Thank you to everyone who has posted, shared and liked anything in the group over the last five years. My self and David Grindlay think you are brilliant.

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