Communications has had a really vital role in helping our communities and our staff and officers understand and react to the coronavirus threat. This series of blogs highlights the critical roles we, as communicators, have played in helping the policing family tackle the complexities of the last six months.
Volunteering during a crisis: my time on the thin blue line
In early January 2020 I sent the Virgin Atlantic comms team a chat message saying, “just a little forewarning that the Coronavirus looks like it’s coming our way.” That was when we felt the first waves of a crisis nobody could have planned for. Between then and April we effectively unwound an airline, slowly suspending routes and grounding the fleet. In airline crisis communications you prepare for the unthinkable, but what faced us was the unimaginable. There was no playbook to follow.
When furloughs were announced across the industry, including mine, I panicked. I understood that it wasn’t personal and knew that it was necessary, but it’s not in my nature to kick back and take things easy. After going at full speed for so long I knew I needed something to do with my time.
Back then, the NHS and other front-line organisations were asking for volunteers. Hundreds of thousands of people signed up across the UK, including many from the airline industry (shout out to Project Wingman!) I was inspired seeing my Virgin Atlantic colleagues putting themselves forward to help in what were clearly going to be high-risk roles. But unlike many of them, I hadn’t had aviation medicine training or any other obvious skillsets that would help me care for people. I wasn’t sure how helpful I would be but wanted to use my experience in communications to help. So, I signed up. And waited.
Then one day the Met called – my first ever call from the police (which did make me jump at first). I had an unexpected chat with the Deputy Head of Media and Communications for the Met Police. She said she’d seen my application to their volunteer programme and wanted to know more. I told her what I did at work and told her how the prospect of doing nothing until June wasn’t sitting well with me. I said I could do whatever they wanted for as much of my time as they needed. At the time I thought I could help deliver flyers or help with a bit of copy here and there. How wrong I was…
Fast forward a few weeks to April and I had started working on Operation Talla, the National Policing response to the Coronavirus. That initial conversation I had led me to the head of communications for the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) who is leading the communications team for ‘Op Talla’. I threw myself in, not sure what to expect from the world of policing but excited by the prospect. Once I’d finished the paperwork and vetting process, I became an official volunteer!
One thing I picked up on immediately from the paperwork was the need for secrecy and the fact that I wouldn’t be able to shout about what I was working on – something that was going to be entirely out of character for me! So, I kept my social contributions to plane-related content and maintained my disguise!
My role on Op Talla focused on communications strategy, planning and enablement. Strategy and planning involved looking at the topics we needed to communicate and working out the best ways of doing so. Enablement focused on ways of working across a brand-new and disparate team.
One of the main challenges faced in Op Talla comms was that the majority of team members haven’t even met in person, exacerbated by the fact that they had to work remotely (as most of the country was). The core NPCC team was bolstered by over a dozen others, seconded from or volunteered by police forces in England and Wales, as well as several government and police agencies. I found myself working with people from the Home Office, the College of Policing and forces including the Met, South Yorkshire, Sussex, West Mercia and Gwent!
One of the first observations I made about policing was the strong sense of collaboration that exists between communications professionals in the forces and agencies. It felt like I’d joined an established team that had worked together for years. I worried that I’d struggle as an outsider, but they welcomed me in immediately. Working in this way was clearly not an alien concept to them and they were at ease functioning as a team despite never having even met each other – something I will definitely take with me.
My next challenge was learning how the police actually works! I expected lots of acronyms (we have plenty in aviation) but I remember really feeling the magnitude of the task at hand when I started learning what they mean in a policing context. Learning what things like DA, CSE and ABH stand for really helped me recognise the seriousness of what the police work with and how important communications is within this. Was I intimidated by my new subject matter? Probably. Did it help me focus on the task at hand? Absolutely.
I was taken aback by the pace of communications needed on a daily basis. On the one hand, proactive communications on predictable Coronavirus-related topics should be relatively easy (in theory). With a strong police communications network and system of national leads, I assumed we’d be able to plan ahead for the rest of summer. In reality, while this is possible to an extent, the reactive demands put on the team mean focus needs to be shifted in often unpredictable ways.
For example, every government Coronavirus announcement, no matter how small, could have significant implications for the police. Social distancing was a great example. We quickly had to define what was considered regulation vs guidance and then create relevant messaging that was simple to follow. Given how rapidly the national response has evolved at times this has been quite a task – but one the team continues to embrace with determination.
Another discovery was what it’s like to work in an environment subject to intense public scrutiny. In my experience in the private sector I’ve always had more autonomy and have been freer to say and do certain things. Sure, there are repercussions when you get things wrong, but they tend to follow commercial dynamics (and shorter memory spans). In a public service like policing, your stakeholder matrix is much larger – and infinitely more complex. The dynamics of accountability are unlike anything else I’d ever experienced. Every single word counts – and not just because it could be a matter of life or death. I was constantly impressed by how seriously the team made each and every one of their decisions – and the sense of profound responsibility that they clearly shared.
The breadth, depth and complexity of expectations on policing comms is staggering. I found myself saying “I am in awe of what you all do” several times a day.
A Golden Age for crisis communications
Prior to 2020, crisis planning had been a largely academic project in my career. I knew the theories, had written dozens of plans, playbooks and stock lines to take, and had even had a few hurricanes to deal with, but this year has allowed me (and many of us) to put all of that into practice – both at an airline and with the police. We now live in a Golden Age of comms where leaders in business and government, and their work forces, look to us for clarity, direction and answers. I was always told that a week in a crisis is like a month in the real world – something 2020 has confirmed.
In June, when it came to wrapping up my time with the police, I found it to be a more emotional departure than I’d expected. Despite all the challenges, particularly the fact that I hadn’t actually met anyone in person, I was able to build some strong bonds and friendships – such is the nature of working on a crisis like this.
I broke away from the parallel universe that I had learned to call home with a lifetime’s worth of learnings, a renewed sense of direction and, most of all, a huge admiration for everything the police are doing at the front lines (and from their homes) to help get the country through the Coronavirus. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
I want to end by saying thank you to everyone I worked with on Operation Talla. You gave me a purpose and made me feel part of a team when I needed it most.
Michael Oakes, Virgin Atlantic Communications Team