Full disclosure: I have mostly enjoyed the last three months of Lockdown.
by Paul Masterman
As a freelance with not much work coming in, lockdown has meant fewer burgers and chips at Travelodges, and Snickers bars in the car. More being the more authentic Paul Masterman and not the performing “Paul Masterman”. More walking, less sitting. Fewer deadlines, less pressure, more Netflix.
Not that it’s all been wonderful. Even the most experienced and outwardly confident of us have been woken by inexplicable anxiety at dawn, like being hit in the stomach with a brick in a sock. And where do those days of sadness and lethargy come from.
It has at least offered me a chance to think hard about the communications profession and my contribution to it and to observe what has been going on through COVID-19, the good, the bad and the ugly.
First of all, though, many of us need to check our privilege, particularly me. Why wouldn’t a middle class, white, ex grammar school boy with money in the bank, a back garden and no-one to home school or elderly parents to look after find the Great Isolation anything other than comfortable?
We professional communicators talk up a good story about how insight and hard research shapes our campaigns, but I wonder if we ever deploy what we could call active empathy as a softer but no less vital skill to help us understand better the lived experience of the people we purport to engage.
As behaviour increasingly becomes the proving ground for strategic communication, we are going to need better ways of listening, seeing and relating to what we call “audiences” but are in fact people – and people who do not always think like me.
Some of us need to do much better at showing that we have at least some small understanding of how all of us live our lives in the real world, if our communication is going to be even vaguely credible. I’m looking at you Foreign Secretary.
We all have examples of how the government’s communication during this crisis has been…erm…patchy.
Many good civil service comms staff must have been staring at their shoes for much of the spring and summer while designing and delivering some decent public health campaigns off the back of policy spliced together ahead of the daily briefing by a small group of political apparatchiks in anoraks.
As Amanda Coleman points out in her latest book leadership, strategy and narrative are the core components of any successful response to a major crisis (respecting the fact that in terms of scale, risk and danger, Coronavirus is a major crisis times 1,000).
Leadership appears to have gone missing over the last few months, literally in some cases. The daily No.10 briefing sessions, which were a chance for an honest conversation with the public, deteriorated into snippy press conference from which the well-meaning politicians, senior journalists and data girls and boys emerged awkwardly at best.
Where we have seen actual strategy and leadership in the raw is at the local level, if frankly at the cost of the mental and physical burn out of some great councillors, officers and communicators. Most council comms teams have stepped in and stepped up, and in some cases established, perhaps for the first time, a strategic voice at the mythical Top Table.
Councils have nailed their reputations locally alongside other public services. When residents leave their houses to thank bin men and applaud previously invisible key workers, you know a major change in perceptions and support is underway.
This is born out to a great extent by the latest polling by the Local Government Association which shows satisfaction with local government at a record high. It will be good to see the published evaluation of the national campaigns when it’s ready particularly as the government communications service’s focus on measurement is quite rightly ruthless and well-executed.
In the end every crisis offers us lessons. But it also brings its heroes. And while there are hundreds of people to mention in the COVID-19 despatches, here is my top five.
Darren Caveney, of this parish – for his selfless support and encouragement to fellow communicators.
Katrina Marshall and Harriet Small – for teaching us there is always another point of view.
Saskia Konynenburg – for challenging advice during the Bristol statue row and for defending local government with brio.
Matt Nicholls and his colleagues at the LGA – for providing leadership and support to the profession.
Paul Masterman is a communications associate and consultant. You can say hello on Twitter at @InterimBoy
*Sign up for the comms2point0 eMag*
The comms2point0 eMag features exclusive new content, free give-aways, special offers, first dibs on new events and much, much more.
Sound good? Join over 2k comms people who have subscribed. You can sign up to it right here.
Image via Christopher Michel