COVID COMMS #27: Expert advice on how to plan your comms in a long term crisis

In a long-running incident you need breaks to recharge your batteries.

Stress leads to mental fatigue and poor decision making.

Four months into COVID-19 the first burst of adrenaline is long gone replaced by the slog of long days.

A quick straw poll in the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group showed 71 per cent of public sector communicators acknowledging a poor work versus life balance as opposed to 25 per cent having it sorted. That’s a big number of people making stressed decisions.

In many comms teams, tackling COVID-19 has been replaced by tackling COVID-19 plus the everyday and very soon things are starting to give. ASs Jim says, there is a temptation for normality which means the day-to-day ends in your inbox.

It was a pleasure to welcome Jim Whittington as a guest speaker in the Headspace Zoom session. Jim has worked in fire comms in the North West of the United States and is now a consultant. 

His area of specialism is known as wildland fire. In short, thats dealing with huge areas of land on fire. His largest incident was helping tackle a blaze three times the size of London.

The good thing about wildland fire is that they’ve hard won experience of staffing long running incidents. 

When the Twin Towers collapsed the city’s fire department shaped how they would respond through a broad process that drew insight from wildlands fire knowledge. They learned to pace themselves in their response in the months that followed and were more effective by doing so.

While the heart says run at the incident, wildland fire thinking knows the need to think, plan and be calm. 

Here are some pointers from Jim’s session.

1. In emergency mode, for every two hours worked take an hour off. You can work 14 days like this then you need a day off. Then you can work another seven. Then you need two off. Stress drives mental fatigue. You also need to realise that this can only be done in bursts. Real life goes on.

2. Those in charge of the team need to stop and plan to stop you staying solely in react mode.

3. Jim is clear that planning helps manage stress as does having a good, inclusive team process for sharing information, making decisions, and communicating those decisions. You want the stress to come from the incident, not from everyone trying to figure out how they will manage the incident, so ideally, those team processes are worked out beforehand.

4. If you manage stress you make better decisions and are less likely to burn out.

5. You have to take breaks and be honest with yourself when you need those breaks.

6. If you now think you need help you’re probably too late just as if you’re thirsty you’ve been too slow to grab water.

7. When youre planning build in slack so people can have that unexpected day off they didn’t know they were going to need.

8. When you’re planning you need those around you to be totally honest and share the information to help you build the picture. Jim calls this building a common operating picture – or a COP – and for him that’s key. Why? Because if there are gaps or an incomplete picture, individuals will naturally fill those in based on their own experiences, their own role, fears, etc. If that happens, he says, you can have a team thinking they are working together but are actually headed in multiple directions. Once you realize this, it then takes a lot of energy to realign for future actions.

A COP also helps with communications because it standardizes the language and imagery everyone on the team will use in their conversations. We all have experiences where something came back to bite us because something a team member said was not quite right or not expressed in an easily understandable way. Like the COP gaps, if there are gaps in the description of an incident, things can spin out of control quickly even with folks working with the best of intentions. Also, a COP is dependent on every member of the team contributing their expertise and knowledge of the situation, with comms people carrying the burden of putting the political-social in context.

9. Pay attention to the elected members and media as they’re going to be stressed too. Help them manage their stress.

10. When you’re talking to senior people make a conscious effort to talk slower and deeper. Quieter, too. It’ll generate a response thats likely to be more calm and more relaxed.

11. When you’re talking to senior people, be clear at the start that everyone is on the same side and wants the best for everyone.

12. When you’re having awkward conversations with senior people, don’t make it about their glaring flaws but instead how we can do things better.

13. When youre having awkward conversations with senior people involve them with the decision making, too. So, explain calmly that you can do X but not X and Y. So, help me out. Should we do X or Y? 

14. When you’re talking with senior people about the X you can do manage expectations.

15. When you’re talking to the reporter educate them in how tricky the decision making is rather than give simple soundbites. People aren’t stupid. Experience says they’ll see through you and they’ll know matters are more complicated than they seem.

16. Ambiguity is what you’ll have to work with. Things are uncertain. That’s your truth.

17. Faced with misinformation stay true to yourself. Even when some of that misinformation may come from a source in another part of the public sector.

18. When your working remotely, you may need to be more explicit than if they were in the room with you and you were reading their body language.

19. Be true to yourself.

20. Keep training your team.

21. Jim has written on what US fire people call ‘parrhesia’. This is a kind of speaking truth to power:

Yes, it’s all terribly subjective–but the job is tough and even tougher to categorize, which makes it near impossible to develop objective criteria. Thus, it is all the more important to open the conversation with sincerity and honesty, which is why I like the notion of parrhesia that Preston Cline brought to our community. Parrhesia is an ancient Greek word thathas classical definitions in rhetoric but was recently adopted and altered by special forces units so that it applies to performance during stressful and dynamic situations. In this sense, parrhesia means a brutally honest conversation that has demands of both the speaker and the listener.

The speaker is obligated to convey truths that may be harsh and difficult, but always come from a respect for the potential of the listener. So much so that it is an honor to enjoin the conversation. The listener is compelled to hear the words in that same regard and understand that through the exchange, they will learn more about themselves and ultimately perform better in tough times, both as an individual and a teammate.

– Jim Whittington.

You can follow Jim on Twitter @jimwhittington and read his blog here. Huge thanks to him for the Zoom event and for shaping this.



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