COVID-19 – The legacy and communication opportunities
One regret I have is not being disciplined enough to keep a diary (for at least the last four months). I often struggle to know how my week started by the time it comes to the weekend but recently the blur between hours, days, weeks and months has truly taken its toll. My head has felt completely saturated at points and I have simply forgotten so much of how we got through those early COVID-19 response days.
My colleagues that have blogged in days before me have eloquently articulated the demands, pressures and challenges communication professionals in policing have felt, and I would definitely echo these. But hence it feels kind of surreal (no different from the last few months then) that I now feel pleasantly optimistic of what can be created as a legacy of the recent national health emergency. I know we are not out of the woods yet, and some may feel I’m being a little presumptuous, but I think we do need to take time to pause, reflect and build on the opportunities we now have.
So, what has COVID-19 done for communications?
1. Well, firstly it forced me to complete a long-standing action on my to-do list, and I now have a detailed, tried and tested business continuity plan. Whether we were to suffer the loss of people, buildings or assets in the future I think we have options outlined for how we would deal, respond and continue to deliver a degree of essential communication services.
2. It has highlighted the fantastic resilience and resolve of communication professionals and, in my view, the importance of omni-competency, particularly within small teams. Recognising that mutual aid was never going to be an option during this crisis we pooled resources from across the wider force, utilising people’s skills sets from outside the traditional Corporate Communications function and enabling us to quickly allocate roles and responsibilities.
3. The eyes of the organisation have been opened to the importance and value of effective internal communications. We don’t have a bespoke Internal Communications role within our team but probably the most important and pivotal aspect of our response to COVID-19 has been getting the right information in a timely and succinct manner to our workforce, whatever their role or working location.
4. With the prioritisation of effort on talking to our workforce has come a new energy and drive to ensure two-way engagement and the use of new medium for messaging. We have very prohibitive internal communication channels which definitely do not allow for audience segmentation. However, we have worked with what we’ve got and it shows the basics can work wonders. Our staff message forum has been a real go-to for getting questions and concerns resolved, our Chief Officer vlogs have allowed them to put a personal touch to otherwise quite dry guidance information and raise their personal profiles in the process, and there have been weeks when our COVID-19 intranet section has had hits from nearing 100% of our workforce – unheard of…ever before! The challenge now is how do we build on these successes and make some of this sustainable into the future.
5. Recognising my saturated mind by mid-May I carried out a quick time team debrief and dip sampling of our internal communications. We acted on this and implemented some immediate changes to how we were operating as a team and to some of the communications we were delivering. It only took an hour out of one of our days but the intelligence gleaned from this was invaluable.
6. In a similar vein we also surveyed our public to understand how our COVID-19 policing was being received and the communications around this. The response was extremely positive and gave us renewed incentive to sustain and continue on the path we had mapped out.
7. On the back of the ending of our Strategic Alliance with West Mercia Police, my team had only been established since October last year. We had just started our resetting and re-establishing when COVID-19 struck. So, it wasn’t an ideal time to be dealing with a major emergency (if ever there is a good time?) but it did mean fast tracking some of the relationship building we had always intended doing. So, our partnership working with our health and local authority colleagues has been invaluable. Not only do I now know my key stakeholder network extremely well but the force is gaining significantly from the communication channels this has opened to us. For example, when vulnerable elderly members of our communities were being targeted by fraudsters we were able to provide warning information direct to their doors through their shielded food package deliveries thanks to the county council.
8. Never before would I have expected that we would work so agily as a communications team. It has certainly not been easy, with no video conferencing facilities and 70% plus of the team at times being spread across the county, we have had to work harder at keeping in touch, so the likes of daily tasking and co-ordination calls have been invaluable and we will keep these going, hopefully one day in a physically present way too. My hope for the future is that while we will seek to retain the agility in principle this will allow for more remote working across the force area, maximising opportunities to work from different police stations and build relationships with wider members of our organisation.
9. As BAU has gradually crept up and up more practical steps of organisation have been forced upon us to prioritise the sustained COVID-19 communication needs. So, our ambition to have a one stop shop to understand weekly team demand has accelerated rapidly and our function activity planner has been born. We can now, at a glance see the operational and organisational priority work in one go allowing us to shift resourcing appropriately. It’s still in its infancy but the foundations have been laid for what will provide the team with an important prioritisation tool to manage the demands which keep coming through the front door.
10. The media went to bed in our area. That is not to be derogatory of them but they were initially forced home in those early days and certainly our local media became ever more reliant on our news feeds. So, we maximised this in turn and sought out new direct channels to engage directly with the public. While I continue to respect and acknowledge the importance our local media play, our responsibility lies in warning and informing the public and we need to be adaptive to use all available channels to best achieve this. For us working with our partners and key stakeholder leads has opened many more doors to how we can now achieve this. Our contact route for media enquiries has also shifted from telephone based to email and this too enables better service delivery as we can prioritise responses accordingly. I could go on, because I think there is much, much more that COVID-19 has identified as ways of working that could and should be built on, developed and allowed to mature into how we do things differently in the future.
I’ve always known change is a given, having led teams through multiple restructures over the last decade these have often been structurally driven. But the changes that we make under pressure, quick time and in respect to how we communicate can often reap far greater rewards and ultimately add real value to the communities we serve and the workforces we operate within.
Finally, I couldn’t end today’s blog without a recognition that all of the above and much more has only been achieved through hours and hours of hard work. This has been delivered while staff have juggled the vast personal challenges resulting from the pandemic. While much good is already materialising from how communication teams have worked differently, there is an underlying concern that we now need to take time to rest and recuperate. I’m sure the true impact on all of our mental and physical health is not yet known but communication professionals need to put well-being at the top of their to-do list and put measures in place to support themselves and their teams as an integral part of our COVID-19 recovery and rebuild.
Having naturally given birth to two large babies (9lb4oz & 10lb14oz!) I am definitely of the view that the mind is extremely clever in how it blocks out pain and tiredness. Perhaps that is why I feel like a goldfish and really can’t quite remember much of April and May. It has been painful at times, it has been exhausting, I wish I had kept that diary but I do have my health and certainly do treasure this more so than ever now. I pay my respects to anyone who has lost a loved one to COVID-19 and hope that in their memory, and as a further positive legacy, we all spend a little more time looking after our own health in the days, weeks and months to come.
Kate Quilley, APComm Co-Chair & Head of Corp Communications at Warwickshire Police