Public sector communications and PR people in the pandemic say they have endured verbal abuse, stress and a lack of leadership.
But they are buoyed by a strong sense of working for the common good across police, fire, NHS, central and local government.
That’s the top lines from more than 450 people from across the United Kingdom took part in the survey I carried out in June and July.
Why carry it out? I was mindful that the comments I was hearing weren’t getting mapped.
The data published in this blog is from questions asked in summer 2020 and was carried out after 12 weeks of pandemic with UK-wide lockdown being eased.
I’m now keen as the pandemic moves on to map as a tracker what people think now.
If you are a public sector communicator I’d be grateful if you spared a few minutes on the October update of the survey here.
A moment in history
In the summer, three quarters of public sector comms people felt as though they were working for the common good with a third feeling as though they were a part of history.
Almost half felt as though they worked for an organisation that was valued with the figure rising to 52.7 per cent for NHS comms staff.
Stress and a lack of leadership
Two thirds of public sector comms people felt more stressed in the pandemic with police topping the chart on 71.9 percent and local government on 70.1 per cent.
But communicators also spoke of a lack of leadership from their home government with two fifths overall complaining of a lack of direction.
Breaking down into country, just over half of communicators in England complained of a lack of government leadership compared to just 5.5 per cent in Scotland.
In Northern Ireland, the figure was 18.5 per cent and just nine per cent in Wales.
A tenth said they had trouble working and caring for a loved one and more than a third said they struggled to home school their children.
The local government experience: at the brunt of the abuse
If you work in local government you’ve had a tough summer of pandemic.
General verbal abuse aimed at the council was experienced by 70 per cent of council PR and comms people with 17.4 per cent seeing it daily. More targeted abuse against individuals was seen weekly by 14.2 percent of communicators.
Anecdotally, respondents didn’t feel as though the pandemic had led to an increase in abuse. The pre-COVID-19 baseline just continued but staff were quicker to say ‘thank you’ when something had worked.
Alarmingly, threats of violence were seen by one in ten.
Racist abuse has been experienced by a quarter of local government comms staff.
To balance this, this sector reported the highest sense of working for the common good at 77.2 per cent and at working as part of a team at 54.5 per cent.
The central government experience: the most confidence in home government
Communicators in governments across the UK reported the second lowest stress levels with 54.7 per cent saying stress had increased since the pandemic.
They also reported the lowest rate of complaints on a lack of leadership in home government with 35.7 per cent but were the sector reporting the least resources to do the job at less than 30 per cent.
Verbal abuse was seen by only a third with just 1.1 per cent seeing it daily.
The NHS experience: valued but stressed
NHS communicators have felt the most stressed but have felt the most valued.
Eight out of 10 have felt they were working for the common good and more than half felt valued.
They’ve also seen lower than average abuse with two thirds not reporting any and just 3.3 per cent seeing it daily – a fifth of the public sector average.
NHS communicators have by far the lowest threats of violence against staff with 97.8 per cent not reporting seeing any. Racist abuse in the sector is less frequent compared to other sectors with 89 per cent not seeing any.
But they have the highest rate – 40.6 per cent – of isolation and complain of the worst leadership in their organisation at 19.8 per cent.
The police experience: strong team work in the face of stress and abuse
Police communicators reported the highest levels of stress with 71.2 per cent report feeling more stressed during the pandemic.
Team work in thin blue line comms has been strong with the highest rating – 62.5 per cent – of any of the public sector.
Abuse is rife with comments aimed at their force is seen daily by four fifths of comms staff. In addition, almost 10 per cent report being personally singled out for abuse and seeing threats of violence daily.
Racist abuse was highest with a third of communicators seeing it weekly – three times higher than any other sector.
The fire experience: less stress away from the COVID-19 sharp end
Fire comms people have felt the lowest rate of all sectors for feeling as though they were working for the common good.
Unsurprising as they are less in the public health or law and order front line.
They are the sector reporting the lowest increase in stress – 42.9 per cent – but complain they are the worst informed. Almost 60 per cent say there is a lack of information from central government
Generic abuse is lowest in fire and rescue with just 4.6 per cent encountering any.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest upheaval to the UK since World War Two ended 75 years ago. It has claimed more than 40,000 lives.
Communicators across the public sector have responded strongly.
But behind the headlines, there is a workforce of public sector communicators working at stress with abuse in local government and police endemic.
Working at pace and under stress is not sustainable and attention needs to be paid to the long term health of those being asked to respond. A reminder email asking staff to take breaks on top of
What’s been fascinating looking at the June figures is a feeling that the landscape has changed for the worse. They’ll be a useful benchmark against a new October survey.
Of course, this survey is unscientific. But it does carry representative samples across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in NHS, fire, central government and local government.
The survey included the views of 456 UK public sector communicators with 88.2 per cent classing themselves as White English, Welsh, Scottish or British, 4.1 per cent white Irish, 1.5 percent Asian or Asian British, 1.8 per cent multiple ethnikc groups and 3.5 per cent other.
Of those surveyed, 76.7 per cent were English compared to English making-up 84.1 per cent of the UK population. Scottish respondents were 7.8 per cent in the survey compared to being 8.1 per cent of the UK’s population. Wales represented 9.6 per cent of the survey and 4.6 per cent of the population with Northern Ireland 5.9 per cent of those who gave their views – twice the comparative size of their population.