The issue of ramping down after an emergency is the pressing issue facing public sector comms. How can work get back to an acceptable pace? Here are some crowd-sourced excellent ideas that may be a bit life saving too.
When rabbits are pulled out of hats every day the act stops being magic and it starts to be normal.
Over the last two years public sector comms teams have worked long hours to communicate in a pandemic. Their work has helped saved lives. They have pulled a field full of rabbits out of a factory of hats.
But let’s be honest. The cost of this sacrifice is being overlooked. You only glimpse the real cost in conversations. Heard about the entire team who burnt out and walked off the job in the space of a month? Or the one who went off with stress and never came back? Or the one who can’t sleep regular hours anymore?
More than half of public sector comms people say their mental health is worse now than before the pandemic. Physical health isn’t much better.
In March 2022, there is a sense that the worst has passed and business as usual has long since returned. With 100,000 daily cases and 192 dead on the day in March 2022 I’m writing this the idea that the storm has passed is open to debate.
But anyway, how do you return to normal?
In an anonymous blog, one senior comms person observes that the emergency pace of long hours has become expected. It’s now baked in.
But should it be?
Of course not.
The major comms challenge of 2022 is not how to ramp up delivery but ramp it down before even more people burn-out, go off with stress or quit the profession.
How to ramp down is the big strategic question.
I’ve asked members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace to come up with some ideas.
A comms strategy and a plan
A comms strategy and plan. Some clearly identified organisation priorities, comms objectives linked to them and an activity plan so we can plot resource against it. So that we know what we’re working towards most of the time and can schedule our days and weeks, and our leave – apart from, say, 10 to 20 per cent of the time when there’s a genuine emergency or reactive situation.
Learn to say ‘no’
Build and maintain a strong comms team and wider network so you always have other people to share your experiences with, to vent to, to support and be supported, to laugh with in the dark and not so dark times, to be a touchstone so you know it’s not just happening to you.
It’s really tough and it’s not over yet, but at least you’re not alone.
Ask why is it urgent
When people say ‘this is urgent’, ask why?
Is it a legitimate, couldn’t-be-foreseen priority which will achieve a real outcome for the organisation. Or is it ‘shit, we forgot to tell comms – quick fire them an email.
If it’s the earlier, fair enough. If it’s the latter, well, sometimes saying ‘no’ can be a good thing and demonstrates planned, professional comms is not a rabbit-out-of-a-hat demo.
Have a workplan and make it visible
Show senior managers the service’s workplan on a regular basis. It might not stop the request coming in but it will make it a little easier to push back.
A detailed plan for you
We are currently addressing some of these issues…
Slowing down the inbound requests by making customers think about what they need before they ask. A drop down menu of options available negates the need to send unsolicited ‘we need some comms’ emails. Also an auto response to acknowledge and manage expectations- business critical? Patient safety related? We’ll be with you within 24-48 hours. Time specific but no major impact? That’ll be within 3-5 days. Longer term request? We’ll put it in the queue and you’ll hear from us within 7-10 working days. Customers need to understand Comms aren’t sat there playing Wordle waiting for the next request to land.
Also try to work with programme and project managers/directors to educate them into understanding that they need to identify the comms outcomes they need to achieve before they can ask you for resource. Because if they don’t know, then you can’t work out if you have the capacity to offer support for it.
Develop some self serve options so that some of the ‘small c’ comms can be delivered by colleagues across the organisation. One of our execs recently took a selfie with staff, submitted it with a couple of lines and we did the rest. Not all content needs to be created by Comms…
Finally, be supportive of your team and help them decline unnecessary requests and meetings and enable them to ask ‘why’ rather than simply react with ‘yes’.
Research through social listening
Use social listening to show whether there there is actually public interest… people are often actually looking in a different direction
Never stop challenging
Never stop challenging and asking why. Urgency has become a habit with corporate colleagues, perhaps due to the amount of actual crisis comms needed to be turned around at pace over the last two years. Time is needed to check work aligns to priorities and has purpose, and there needs to be a clear recognition of the difference between crisis comms and poor planning.
Relax and cut the audience some slack
Our audiences are also exhausted. After two years of having to pay attention to our channels to access vital information they needed to meet their basic needs, such as income and healthcare, they’re finally able to get back to some level of normality. We need to cut our audiences some slack and stop communicating like they’re hanging on our every word, they’re not.
Selfcare: Deliberately cut back on work hours
Make yourself less available and work to a sensible drum beat, so you have the capacity for genuinely urgent matters. Work out what actually isn’t going to break any eggs if you slow the pace down.
Selfcare: Look after yourself first and then others
‘Put your mask on first’ is advice I often give out, but forget to tell myself If you are not ok then you aren’t in a position to help others and do your job effectively. So, hard as it is, look after yourself. How ever that looks to you.
Selfcare: Book and take proper leave
Take your annual leave.
And really take it – no ‘Oh, I’ll just log on for a minute,’, no ‘Oh, I’m around if you need me Mr/Mrs CE.” No, ‘I’m not going anywhere therefore I’ll pick up my phone’.
Selfcare: Switch off
My other half was prised away for his birthday weekend recently, two days of no internet and Scottish sunshine. On return he remarked that a really difficult issue he’d been dealing with had been made worse by people emailing each other all weekend about it. A bit of perspective and energy helped him resolve it on the Monday. His advice to his senior, academic peers was, switch off more and make better decisions.
Don’t say ‘I’m busy’
Being visible about what work you have on. Just saying ‘I’m busy’ doesn’t cut it with others who also think they’re busy.
Lead-in times really help, and a clear message that if this work is taken on, something else has to give. Usually does the trick.
Thank you to Bridget Aherne, Sarah Forgione, Melinda Brown, Sam Kemp, Caroline Howarth, Georgina Button, Kate Pratt, Hannah Rowley, Kelly ShutlerRosalie Fairbairn, Suzie Evans, Louise Sharf, Sacha Taylor, Sara Hamilton, Clare Parker, Lucy Hartley, Susanna Griffiths and everyone who contributed.
To read part one of this mini series head here.