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The role of communication during Covid-19… and beyond

In our latest guest blog, Katie Mallinson, Managing Director of our public relations agency Scriba PR, considers how the role of communications has changed in the past 12 months, and how organisations – and individuals – could learn from this, when the pandemic is hopefully a distant memory…

This is one of the hardest blogs I’ve ever had to write. Because after the events of the past 12 months, I don’t think anybody wants to think that someone else is telling them what to do. We’ve had enough of being forced into taking actions that nobody really wants to take. We’re fed up, in many cases, of spending our lives on video calls. Some of us are tired of the noise. Some of us are hating the quiet.

So please believe me when I say that this blog is not going to include any telling off. Any tutting. Any judgment. It’s simply food for thought.  Digest it, if you like, over a slice of something indulgent. Go on – you deserve it…

I’m actually writing these words, in bed, recovering from Covid-19 – which is ironic really, because a blog about communication is being penned when I’m probably the quietest I’ve been in… 35 years?! Certainly the last 12 months.

But if I think back to the outbreak of Covid-19, comms have been crucial for our business. I know that’s unsurprising, given the industry we work in. However, words have never mattered quite so much.

Looking back to lockdown 1.0

When the lockdown was first announced, we’d already moved everything to a home office environment a few days previous, ‘just to be on the safe side’. We’ve never been averse to flexible working so this initial shift was relatively headache-free. We made a concerted effort from day one to find ways to keep in touch, and spirits high – not least because our newest recruit had arrived only two weeks beforehand! The first month of someone joining us is always about them getting ‘settled’ and making sure they’ve made the right decision, so we still wanted to welcome her with a bang.

And boy did the bang come! Only two weeks or so after the onset of lockdown, more than £284,000 of retainer work was paused. For a team of 8FTE, that’s a lot! We were careful to ensure there was no animosity – clients were honest with us and needed our help to stay afloat. All were clear it was only temporary but, equally, most admitted that the pauses were indefinite.

Other clients maintained their comms investment – some, in sectors such as tech, remained extremely busy and strategically focused, while others found themselves concentrating on reactive ‘needs must’ communications to prevent rumour mills going into overdrive. Whatever the brief, most of these organisations needed us more than ever.

For that reason, I didn’t see how we could put any colleagues on furlough. In our world of technical PR, our clients are very niche, so to pass them to a new member of a consolidated team who knew comparatively little about them, just didn’t feel like an option.

The ultimate test

I was open with colleagues that this was going to be a test for us. A big one. There were times when I was an emotional wreck – and not just because I’d had a baby four weeks earlier. I battled with daily thoughts of “I’m totally winging this”, “I feel like a leadership fraud” and “Am I doing enough?” In the face of questions about the future, I didn’t have concrete answers and as people looked at me hungry for certainty, I hated that I couldn’t give it to them. In hindsight, I think most business owners found themselves in the same boat, but it still felt like a lonely ship to steer.

My gut told me to keep talking to people – clients, whether paused or not, so they knew we were still here; partners and friends of the business so we could share pep talks and ideas large and small; and colleagues so we didn’t lose our vibe. This undoubtedly kept us sane and I hope we returned the favour many times over, when people wanted to pick our brains, or lean on our shoulders too. I think honesty and authenticity became extremely valued traits, as the year unfolded.

We took part in many lockdown-obligatory Zoom quizzes, and enjoyed other virtual treats with co-workers and clients, from takeaway nights with our extended families to home spa evenings, murder mysteries, cheese tasting and more! However clichéd this ‘organised fun’ sounds – and however weary some people may be of it now – it mattered.

Rallied troops and real commitment

This undoubtedly went a long way to us taking every week as it came, excited with every retainer that returned, only to feel deflated when the next client called sometimes only hours later, to tell us of their struggles.

But the new business enquiries kept coming as well. And the capacity we had meant we could explore these, at the same time as wowing clients who continued to invest and keeping in touch with those who needed to take a break. The commitment and hard work of everyone in the team, made this possible.

As we started to feel a little more optimistic, did I worry that the beautiful new office we’d spent six months refurbing in 2019, was now redundant? Yes. But do I think it still plays an important part in our approach to flexible working? Yes. For us, it’s about having a choice, and I don’t see that changing – for our team, anyway.

The turn of the year

By September, six rollercoaster months after lockdown hit, we’d replaced every pound of lost revenue – and some – with either un-paused, upsold or new work. Everyone received a £500 bonus that day. Not because 2020 was ever going to be a year of phenomenal business growth for Scriba, but it felt like a milestone for the team, nonetheless.

By that point, we’d also welcomed an additional colleague into the business, each embarked on a day of volunteering per month with paid leave, we donated a £35,000 PR contract to a local charity, and delivered pro bono support to 10-year-old Maisie Catt – a double amputee who walked 26 miles for LimbPower and raised £11, 768 in the process.

And then all eyes were on Christmas – ‘the home straight’. In truth, we knew that the end of the year didn’t mark anything like the end of Covid-19, the end of uncertainty, or the end of the monotony that had become our daily lives. But a) we all needed a rest; b) we were proud that we’d dealt with the year as we had; and c) we were thankful that we were all still healthy and doing the jobs we loved.

There’s no denying that lockdown 3.0 felt like a huge blow, even though it was probably to be expected. The more people I talk to, the more I realise that everyone is being asked to dig deeper than before, when it comes to resilience, patience and self-motivation.

The sound of silence

So, all we can do, is keep trying. Do our best. Allow ourselves days where we, quite frankly, don’t want to have a conversation with anyone – as long as there are hopefully days where we can lift our heads up and look out for those around us, when they’re feeling at their most overwhelmed.

Remember, that words said even in the heat of the moment can have a lasting and often devastating impact. And sometimes the words that go unsaid can be just as cruel, if they’re absent when we need to hear them the most. Sometimes, we also just haven’t been able to find the words, and I think that’s totally ok.

But words of reassurance – in both our personal and professional lives – can provide comfort and confidence. They can demonstrate empathy and togetherness. Carefully chosen words can inspire, inform and encourage. They can keep people safe, families connected and colleagues united. They’ve certainly kept organisations in business and employees in jobs.

So, sometimes, embrace the quiet. Otherwise, let’s keep talking.

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