Mental wellbeing at work

Did you know that 73% of agency workers rate the stressfulness of their jobs at 7+ out of 10, and that 25% of us have had time off due to stress, anxiety or depression? (CIPR State of the Profession survey 2019/20).

In response to the growing importance of mental wellbeing at work, the CIPR is now running a one day course aimed at people managers, leaders and directors who are keen to build their knowledge and confidence in this area so they can create the right kind of supportive environment for their teams to thrive. 

My motivation for attending the course was to equip myself with a better understanding of the key factors that affect mental wellbeing, as well as get a handle on the techniques I need to adopt as a manager in order to help promote wellbeing in the teams I work with. The course objectives promised to deliver:

  • Have increased knowledge and understanding of mental health and stress at work
  • Help reduce the stigma associated with mental ill health within your workplace
  • Build awareness of yourself and others in order to foster effective communication
  • Begin to create a team climate that supports mental wellbeing moving forward
  • Be confident in having effective conversations relating to mental wellbeing

Beyond the basic understanding that mental ill health and stress are among the leading causes of absenteeism as well as having an adverse impact on productivity, engagement and morale, I didn’t really know what to expect from the day so it was an unexpected bonus to find myself in a small and friendly group led by the very capable Cathy Conan, who’s perfectly placed to deliver training to our industry, being an integrative psychotherapist with a comms background herself. Cathy established a warm and confidential atmosphere from the start that encouraged us all to share our experiences frankly, which was a boost for our own mental wellbeing as managers, as well as really enrichening the learning.

Through the day we covered the following key themes:

  • Organisational change and implementation
  • Post-pandemic reset
  • Support for individuals
  • Creating a culture that supports wellbeing
  • Tools and techniques

Some key takeaways to give you a flavour of the learning:

  • Right brain stress response is automatic and not under our conscious control
  • Stressors are different for each of us – don’t presume to know but ask and listen
  • We need human contact for wellbeing so the cumulative effect of the last year’s lockdowns should be recognised
  • It’s really important to find satisfying hobbies to down regulate stress – engaging but relaxing at the same time
  • Our body is where we hold emotions and experience stress – movement is very important for releasing this
  • If we live our lives permanently in strain, we will move to burnout
  • You can’t force yourself from burnout to performance mode – you need spells in recovery, and that’s the focus needed now after a year plus of living with the pandemic

As managers, we need to set the right kind of nurturing culture for our teams by embodying a healthy approach to mental wellbeing ourselves. We must look after ourselves before we can support others effectively so self-care was a touchpoint throughout the training. Regular breaks, fresh air and exercise are crucial for keeping ouselves mentally fit and well. We should recognise that our needs are biological, social and psychological, and look to see if they’re being met across this spectrum.

We also spent a fair amount of time discussing the importance of boundaries. We are there to encourage and support our teams, but not to parent them. We need to be clear about setting expectations and laying out the support available in our organsations. Ultimately, we’re there to empower team members to help themselves, not to try to diagnose or fix their problems ourselves. Regular one to ones are vital for being attuned to any changes that might signal someone is struggling with anxiety and stress. It is also very important to create a safe environment to help people overcome their barriers to opening up, so helpful conversations that involve careful listening are key.

Another very interesting and valuable section of the course focused on the difference between sympathy and empathy, with the latter being the more constructive goal.

Finally, we unpacked the six factors highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive as fundamental for getting right if you are to create a healthy working environment: the level of demand place on individuals, degree of autonomy experienced, support available, quality of working relationships, clarity on roles and boundaries, and recognising the impact of change.

We closed the day by coming full circle to where we started: mental wellbeing starts with us as individuals if we are to become effective managers in this crucial area. In Cathy’s words, I need to put my own oxygen mask on first, asking myself what I need to do to make sure I’m thriving, before I can help others do the same. Never stop asking ‘What’s OK, what isn’t OK?’, and always be sure to listen critically to others.

The CIPR’s next Mental Wellbeing at Work course will take place 7 September, 09:30-15:30. Click now for full details and to register: https://cipr.co.uk/CourseDetail?EventKey=MWW070921&TrainingCode=RE&TKey=1093515

Ruth Jackson is Chair of CIPR E Anglia and Communications Manager at Cambridge Enterprise, University of Cambridge. She received a free place on the course as a volunteer.

Our 2021 manifesto

Following the announcement of Lockdown 3.0, we firstly want to share our support for all the fantastic businesses, organisations and individuals doing such sterling comms work under incredible pressure. Hats off to those in local government, public services and the NHS, in particular. Your work is valuable and much appreciated by us all.

As we mentioned on a few calls toward the end of last year, we wanted to begin 2021 by sharing our vision for CIPR East Anglia, and our goals for the year ahead. It’s good practice to set out our intentions, and it will be something to benchmark against as we progress through the year.

Firstly, we want to say a massive thank you to our outgoing Chair, and CIPR Fellow, Becky Hall for her dedication over the years, and to Louise Hepburn, who has stepped down from her position as lead for the CIPR Pride Awards. It is the dedication, energy and enthusiasm of our voluntary committee members that has given us such a strong foundation on which to build going forwards.

Taking over from Becky are co-chairs Adam Driver and Ruth Jackson.

Adam currently runs his own strategic comms consultancy (Authentic Comms) and has agency and in-house experience across digital marketing, SEO, content, PR, social and internal comms.

Ruth has over 25 years in marketing communications across the private and public sectors, both B2B and B2C. She’s currently the Communications Manager for Cambridge Enterprise, the commercialisation arm of the University of Cambridge.

As co-chairs, we’re looking forward to working with the committee and CIPR HQ to deliver increasing value for the members in our region in 2021 by delivering a clear, shared agenda focused on the following three areas:

1. Diversity and inclusivity

We will reach out to more groups and organisations that support diversity across the board including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. We want to become more representative of our society, and therefore more relevant to a wider cross-section of PR and communication professionals.

2. The next generation

We will embark on a drive to engage with those starting their careers, encouraging them to develop their public relations and marketing communications skills and experiences – this will include mentorship through the CIPR’s new Career Starter scheme.

3. Being PR & communication ambassadors

We will focus on stakeholder outreach with professional organisations like the local CBI and CIM, media, businesses and fellow communicators to raise the profile of the CIPR and how we add value to our profession. With this goal in mind we have created a new Stakeholder Lead role, which has been taken on by incoming committee member Hayley Mace.

As always, we welcome your feedback, suggestions, and offers of help – please feel free to contact us at cipreastanglia@gmail.com or via Twitter.

We look forward to working with you and supporting CIPR East Anglia members in 2021.

Adam & Ruth

Jennifer Sanchis – PR measurement and evaluation: Where are we now?

Interview with Jennifer Sanchis: “Always think of your organisation as a piece of a puzzle. Never review it in isolation. Always look at the bigger picture” 

For AMEC’s measurement month this year, the CIPR EA hosted a webinar with measurement specialist and 2019’s Outstanding Young Communicator Jennifer Sanchis on the importance of strategic planning and PR research. The event was a success, so we managed to follow-up with additional questions from the audience.

CIPR EA: What is the best way of measuring outcomes?

J.S.: Undeniably by understanding your organisational objectives from the start. Your activities and your strategy should serve the goals and objectives of your organisation. If you are able to measure your efforts against those goals, your outcomes will be more impactful because they will speak to the bottom line of the business.

I often see the mistake of focusing too much on output metrics (‘the big numbers’), but these vanity metrics generally do not tell us much about our impact on outcomes.

It is absolutely essential to make this connection between communications efforts and business outcomes, because an organisation’s objective is rarely to achieve media coverage or generate one thousand likes, it is usually to influence behaviours and drive an action.

So, we need to be able to show our impact in influencing behaviours and driving actions.  

CIPR EA: How do I communicate results effectively to clients and the Senior Management Team (SMT)?

J.S.: I would give four pieces of advice for better communicating measurement results:

  • Use the language your colleagues at the board speak. Do not dumb down the analysis. However, do use the concepts, metrics and salient aspects your colleagues live by to assess the success of their campaigns. In my experience, dashboards containing tailored metrics work quite well to share easy-to-digest and sizable but still actionable insights;
  • Acknowledge your audience isn’t always data and analysis savvy. We need to dedicate some time to train and explain what each metric and information in our evaluation process implies and means to your audience;
  • Highlight clear links between the initial business objectives and the desired outcomes. This way, your audience will be able to relate to your measurement study and your findings will have more impact;
  • Integrate your measurement analysis by speaking to the different departments of the organisation. For example, the marketing team could share insights on customer behaviour, the sales team on sales data and the digital team on web traffic. Identifying areas of collaboration will enable to not only understand where opportunities lie but also get a holistic picture of business performance.

CIPR EA: How can I pitch my clients for more budget on evaluation and measurement?

J.S.: I understand the need to pitch for better budgets allocated to measurement.

I guess the best way to secure budget is by delivering value. So many tools and platforms out there give you lots of data, quick and easy outputs metrics, but do they really deliver value to what you’re trying to achieve? Do these tools really speak to your organisational objectives? And are you measuring the things that matter?

A compelling argument would be to demonstrate that measurement is not a final activity that solely exists to prove the success or failure of a campaign. Rather, we should prove that it is an intelligence-gathering exercise that can be used to show an impact on business outcomes, inform future decisions to do better and find new ways of doing things more effectively and efficiently.

Delivering value, always, should be the answer.

CIPR EA: How can Artificial Intelligence support my planning process?

J.S.: We could do a whole piece on this because there seems to be a lot of misconceptions around the power of AI.

People are wondering if machines are taking over, because when we look at data, measurement, analysis, reports, digital spaces etc, yes, we do see huge innovations in terms of AI and machine learning in this field.

And AI is really great for data management, forecasting and analysis. It can help us go faster and stronger, but ultimately, and this is a big BUT, it can’t replace us. Humans are still needed.

So, to answer the question, AI can be a valuable tool for risk management, community identification and reputation audits, and it can support the information gathering phase. However, we have to remember that PR is not an exact science, so humans are still needed.

CIPR EA: How do I review and plan for your Covid-19 strategy?

Jennifer Sanchis: This is a very timely and relevant question.

I would advise t first and foremost to review and clearly outline your organisation’s strategy, its objectives, and research, monitor and analyse its environment. It will help you communicate your organisation’s position on the issue of Covid-19.

Ultimately, always think of your organisation as a piece of a puzzle. Never review it in isolation. Always contextualise it and look at the bigger picture.

Now, when a crisis hits, like a pandemic for example, or you have to make some employees redundant, or you are faced with health and safety issues, you will want to think about your people and how ready you are to tackle those issues.

Usually when we talk about a crisis such as a pandemic, there’s usually a lot of introspection and internal work involved. So you’ll want to investigate areas like policy and leadership, structure, procedures, people and culture.

In doing so, you should be able to collect data from employees to stakeholders, legal teams to directors, from meetings and calls that took place internally, internal newsletters, surveys and social platforms.

And your research and planning should revolve around those three important points:

  • Escalation of the crisis: Did we escalate the crisis on time? If not, what prevented this? What could we have done better?
  • Decisions: Did we get the right people at the right time? Did the crisis team define SMART objectives? How did we assess our progress? How were key decisions perceived?
  • Implementation: How were important decisions communicated internally? Was accurate and sufficient information provided in a timely manner? Were all the targeted audiences reached? Did everybody within the organisation understand the effectiveness of the crisis response plan and were the facilities/tools in place to support this?

The AMEC framework can help you measuring what matters. For example:

  • The volume of information in relation to Covid-19
  • The quality of information communicated
  • The quality of relationships (Interpersonal trust with key stakeholders and audiences)
  • Communication channels (With comparisons between official and unofficial channels)
  • The sentiment of the collected data (Any positive or negative stories? Incidents?)

We can now be a little bit more optimistic by assuming that a vaccine will be made available for next year, so perhaps you will want to monitor the latest clinical developments closely and reflect on your communication around this.

I have written a more extensive piece for Influence Magazine if you’d like to know more about the monitoring mechanisms you should put in place. This framework should help you with your Covid-19 response to make better decisions.

Brutal, but brilliant: getting Chartered

By Adam Driver

What a day. A few weeks ago, I took part in one of the online CIPR Chartered assessment days. It was one of the toughest professional days in my career, and also the most rewarding.

#GetChartered – why did I bother?

I have immense pride in my career and how I hold myself. The way I act, the decisions I make, how I do things. It’s about confidence in my ability (imposter syndrome, anyone?) and being evaluated and pitted against peers and fellow professionals.

For me, becoming a Chartered practitioner is a prestigious accolade. It is about being at the top of my profession, proving my abilities and – as w*nky as it sounds – being the best of the best. 

Secondly, my late father was a Chartered engineer, and I always admired how proud he was of achieving that – something that took a lot of hard work and dedication.

Coming clean

In honesty, this is the second time I have gone for it.

The feedback from my unsuccessful attempt this June was that I was ‘borderline’, and I thankfully got a second chance to come back. That said, June was a huge sucker punch to my confidence. Took a while to get over, yet I feel anything like this should be tough to achieve.

However, I also wasn’t ready in June. I was in the throes of launching my new business and had two big pitches that stole my attention. For one, I was working until 1am finishing it off, on the morning of the assessment day. So, yeah…. Don’t do that. 

I read the case studies and prepped the questions – but not enough – and didn’t know the CIPR Code of Conduct in enough detail/didn’t refer back to it as much as I should have. 

What did it entail?

As many other, more eloquent folk have laid out (including Liz, Sarah and a great webinar by Michelle and Ruth), the day starts a few weeks before, when you get given the case studies & starter questions.

Without giving too much away, for me these three topics were on the wider topics of strategy (importance of measurement and evaluation), ethics (on a PR tender for a controversial state client) and leadership (style and skills of a leader). These are different each time.

On the virtual day, there are four key sessions, sandwiched between an introductory and wash-up call. Each session looked at the strategy, ethics and leadership articles and the assessor asks questions to individual participants, based on the articles shared beforehand.

During the sessions, you have the opportunity to interject and come back on points made by your peers. It’s about balanced, reasoned debate. Make the most of this.

My advice?

  • Don’t take it for granted –  yes you’ve been working for years, but this is not an easy process. Make sure you feel ready;
  • Be concise but coherent – I was not comprehensive enough in my explanation. Make sure you are clear in what you are saying. Give real world experience and examples;
  • Know the Code of Conduct back to front, and refer to it;
  • Use examples – from your background OR what you would do in that situation. Don’t worry if you’ve not managed a team of twenty or worked for a global agency. Use things that are relative to you and how you would approach things; and
  • Interact with the other participants – Chartership is all about holding your own in the company of your peers. There is more than one way to answer the leading questions…

Get in touch if I can answer any questions, or help you decide on making the move to being Chartered. Want to know more about getting Chartered? Drop me an email

For more information, visit the Get Chartered page on the CIPR website, that includes finding out if you are eligible, tips and advice, the Chartership handbook (READ IT) and how to register.

It was undoubtedly a tough day, but probably THE most worthwhile in my professional life. Believe in yourself, treat it with the respect it deserves and give it a shot!

Internal comms in the public sector

Blog by Elizabeth Skeels, internal communications manager for Essex Police

Given the frenetic pace of work over the last five months, I feel like I’ve gained a lifetime’s worth of experience.

Elizabeth Skeels, internal communications manager, Essex Police

It’s so tempting to use words like ‘unprecedented’ and ‘historic’ when talking about these ‘current times’ (another ubiquitous phrase at the moment), but I’m sure I’m not alone amongst internal communications professionals when I say that alongside a seismic shift in society, we’ve also seen a once-in-a-career shift in the appreciation for our industry.

I was recently invited by CIPR East Anglia to join a Q&A session alongside Mel Atkinson, corporate external comms manager, for Norfolk County Council, to talk about what I’ve learned whilst being the Internal Communications Manager for Essex Police during the coronavirus pandemic.

I think many of us have emerged with very similar scars from battling the challenges that the pandemic presented. Whether it’s having to support an organisation to adapt to an entirely new way of working overnight or keeping up with the pace of societal and legislative change or desperately trying to understand the latest public health messaging.

To create some kind of structure and consistency during the crazy months of March and April, I used some tried and tested internal communications tactics, including:

  • a resource hub of Covid-19 information and policy on our intranet
  • a weekly, virtual leadership briefing for strategic messages to be shared and cascaded
  • a visible ‘lead’ in force who published regular updates that immediately followed and translated the key messages from the briefings from Number 10
  • a daily briefing document for police officers which collated all the latest operational guidance

We also published regular media briefings on our external messaging, to maximise the opportunities around employee advocacy. This was so important because in times of crisis or uncertainty, the public looks to the police to help and protect them. By providing our employees with direction on our external communications strategy we were able to amplify our messaging and reinforce our policing approach to engage with our communities, building trust and confidence.

Not everything worked – anecdotal feedback from officers is that we over-communicated and the volume of information was too much to absorb. I can completely take that on board. But there were some impressive results:

  • of the new COVID-19 internal channels, we evaluated that our Coronavirus info page had 126% more views than a comparable page for the month of March 2020.
  • 75% of the public surveyed think that Essex Police is doing a good or excellent job policing during the Coronavirus pandemic
  • 82% of the public fully support the approach Essex Police has taken during the pandemic

Most internal communications professionals would love to be able to find a direct, measurable link between internal engagement and external impact. In our case, there’s a definite causal link between the consistent messaging that we used within the organisation and the consistent policing approach our communities experienced and supported in such overwhelming numbers.

During the Comms: inside and out webinar I was asked what I considered to be the greatest success for our communications activities during the last five months of the coronavirus. My answer: getting through it! It’s been incredibly tough and it would be really rewarding to be able to measure everything that we’d done, but I take comfort in the thought that we did our best and we contributed something positive during this devastating global crisis.   

10 tips from 10 years running my own PR agency

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

It’s now ten years since I started my own PR and marketing agency and, even in the current circumstances, things continue to go from strength to strength.

Pre-Brexit, pre-COVID, 2010 certainly seems like a long time ago, so I thought it would be a good time to write down some of what I’ve learnt over the last decade. And as I foolishly wrote a post entitled 5 things I’ve learnt in 5 years of running my own business in 2015, I’ve now got to up my game and come up with 10 lessons…………

1. Network, network, network

I’d estimate over 95% of my client business has come from referrals from people I’ve worked with in the past or personal recommendations. In fact, I can directly link a huge chunk of my revenues over the years to one contact and the people and companies she’s introduced me to. I’m not a pushy networker – this has all come from doing a good job for people, keeping in contact and never burning any bridges.

2. Pay it forward

When I started up lots of people gave up their time to help, from recommending what I needed to do on the admin side of running a business, to providing introductions or just listening. I’ve tried to do the same for people I meet starting up – hopefully I’ve been able to help, rather than hinder their growth!

3. It’s not a competition

Linked to being helpful is realising that PR and marketing is a big field when you are a freelance or a small agency. Clearly you have competition, but the likelihood of coming up against someone you know in a pitch is small. So being open and helping others won’t have an impact on your own success – and you’ll learn as much as (or more than) you give. And meeting with fellow practitioners is great for setting the world to rights and getting out of your own bubble.

4. Be agile

I started with a belief that I’d be offering PR services with a smattering of copywriting and a bit of social media. Ten years on I’m primarily providing marketing consultancy in its broadest sense, with creating content the biggest part of what I do. Obviously do what you are comfortable with, but be flexible, particularly with smaller clients and tailor what you are doing to their actual objectives.

5. Be brave

Setting up your own agency is a risk, but it delivers incredible satisfaction and rewards. While we all need to bring in revenues (have you seen how much three teenage boys can eat in a day?), be prepared to say no to clients you don’t feel comfortable working with. Or, if you have to keep them on for financial reasons in the short-term, look for alternatives that you can replace them with down the line.

6. Be prepared to continually learn

As I said what I do has changed dramatically and it has meant learning new skills and brushing up old ones. Ensure that you are continually learning, both to ensure you stay relevant and to keep yourself sharp and on top of new ideas.

7. Don’t be an idiot

Or, as Joe Glover of the Marketing Meetup puts it “Be positively lovely.” Bear in mind that everyone you meet could be a potential client or help you in some way and treat them with respect and give them time. You’ll feel better about yourself and it could help you in the future too.

8. Learn to let go

Something I find difficult to do, but make sure you switch off from work and recharge your batteries. It isn’t easy, particularly if you are based from home and have a smartphone pinging every time a new email arrives. Develop coping strategies – whether that’s going for a run, spending time with your family or taking the dog for a long walk.

9. Be creative

It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, doing the same thing you’ve always done, in the same way you’ve always done it. Like learning new skills, take the time to approach problems from new directions or solve them in different ways. Share and brainstorm issues with people you trust to get their perspective and spark new ideas.

10. Don’t try and do everything yourself

There’s a huge range of support services out there, from marketing and PR software to really good accountants and advisors. Outsource what you can to other experts – bear in mind that you only have a limited amount of time in the day, and in many cases others can do tasks much faster, more cost-effectively and just plain better than you.

Ten years of work equates to over 57,000 hours of hard graft, which is a sobering thought. I’d never have been able to get this far without the support of countless people over the decade – thanks for all your help and here’s to the next decade.

Blog by Chris Measures

Crisis comms for public sector

Blog by Mel Atkinson, communications manager (corporate affairs) at Norfolk County Council

I thought I was experienced in crisis comms – and then Covid 19 arrived.

Mel Atkinson, corporate external comms manager, Norfolk County Council

Our NHS, social care and key worker colleagues deserve all the plaudits for their dedication, professionalism and bravery throughout this pandemic.

Public sector comms supported their efforts to protect the public’s health and wellbeing, through clear messaging, reassurance and information.

The pace, complexity and sensitivity of the issues presented daily and long-term communications challenges – and lots of learning.

Councils and their partners have had a wide-ranging role during the pandemic, including: public health advice and tackling outbreaks; supporting vulnerable adults and children through social care, befriending of lonely people and deliveries of food and medicine; helping the care sector to source protective personal equipment; working with hospitals on the safe discharge of Covid patients; advising schools on how to reopen, safely; setting up temporary mortuaries; ensuring key services were available online, when libraries and other facilities closed; and planning for how to implement the easing of lockdown and economic recovery.

The key communications challenges were:

  1. Responding to a relentless flurry of game-changing announcements from the Government, while attempting to look ahead and plan future phases of our comms work
  2. Working with the grain of Government messaging, while identifying the need to clarify and tailor aspects of it to our audiences
  3. Ensuring the council and its director of public health provided the main local voice of reassurance, advice and authority
  4. Partnership working and co-ordinated communications to ensure a united front across all public agencies in Norfolk – maximising the impact of our messaging
  5. Managing a comms team remotely, to ensure people who were working from home and were facing their own stresses were supported and valued and productive

The experience we gained over the last few months should improve the way we serve the public and our organisations:

  1. Comms has demonstrated, in the toughest circumstances, that it is a skilled, strategic profession. It should be wired into key plans and decision-making from the start.
  2. Swift, sensible and informed decisions can be made when the right people are in the room/Zoom. The culture of copying in half the world to approve comms products needs to end.
  3. Genuine partnership working can take place, if comms reps are open and respect the particular issues each organisation has. Let’s not second guess each other and let’s focus on the shared aims.
  4. Up-front accountability and engagement with our audiences, including the media, builds trust and should continue beyond crisis periods.
  5. Our teams have shown they will rise to exceptional challenges, if you understand them as individuals, you actually care about them and you show you are human, too.

As chief medical officer Chris Whitty said, we are not out of the woods yet. But public sector comms will continue to play its part – striving to be strategic, agile and effective, in the toughest of circumstances.

I’ll share my key lessons and takeaway points from an external comms perspective in the CIPR East Anglia’s webinar on 29th July at 7pm alongside Elizabeth Skeels from Essex Police who will share her experiences from an internal comms perspective. Sign up for free here.

Meeting industry heroes and upskilling during Covid-19

Picture credit – Image by congerdesign from Pixabay. Blog written by committee member Michelle Nelson.

I heard an interesting stat the other day. Kids ask their parents 300+ questions a day. Love a stat.

But it got me thinking, ‘When does our curiosity for the world around us emerge?’. I was definitely the child that asked ‘Why?’ and who could be found working my way through the shelves of my local library for a book I hadn’t read, which I’d later tear through by torchlight under the bedcovers.

That love for learning has been my constant companion over the years. Love it or hate it, lately you may not have had a choice. Certainly, a spot of judicious remote learning could be just the ticket to break you out of lockdown, help you upskill or simply be a source of comfort and support.

At the start of this year, after three intensive years of study alongside my full-time job, I was looking forward to kicking back with a bit of light reading in the garden at the weekend with a glass of Pimms. But, thanks to COVID-19, I’ve found myself spending more time at home. And guess what, the urge to learn soon returned.

Virtually we have no limit on our learning. Virtual is our global classroom and the world are our classmates. There are no limits to our learning and the people we can reach out to.

Granted, we are all at different stages in how COVID-19 has impacted our lives – so do something or do nothing, it’s your choice. It doesn’t even have to be career related. It is what makes you feel stimulated whether that be learning candle making or string theory.

But, if it is career-related, and you are thinking of pivoting your career or just enhancing your skillset – the first thing I would recommend you do is:

  1. Get a big pad of paper  
  2. Write down all the things you are good at and not so good at
  3. Look at it as a sort of Venn diagram – what is the bit in the middle? The ‘I want to know more about this’, ‘never want to do any of that ever again’, or ‘I have always wanted to try this’. Or maybe, if you are reaching for the next rung on the career ladder, ‘what will help me get my next job?’.

I wanted to broaden my knowledge of coding. I had managed over 10 websites with agencies over my career and coded the odd newsletter, but I had never built a website from scratch.

By chance I received an email from Camb.AI, promoting new courses on learning coding from Codefirstgirls. Look them up! They are a great initiative offering free courses to try and get more women into the STEM community.

So, I signed up and, on a Thursday at 6.30 pm, I joined an eight-week virtual course with 20+ other coding newbies from around the UK. After introductions, it was straight into the world of HTML, CSS and JavaScript with live demos, homework, and a Google drive and Slack network to collaborate. Our mission, should we choose to accept it and complete the course, was to create our own website in groups and put it online. My project group chose cinema and we developed two pages each. I created the comedy and about us page. Chatting with each other on Slack I found a virtual camaraderie and spirit of curiosity to learn more about web developing.

Our week eight finale was a show and tell of each other’s sites. I had begun genuinely looking forward to tuning into these weekly sessions and working with my project group and it was with excitement tinged with sadness that I logged onto the group link for the final end of term webinar. Our teams had done our tutors proud. Three websites with three completely different themes and which surprisingly looked thoroughly professional. The first was for a virtual book club, the second for an Italian restaurant and ours for the love of film. The course culminated with a small drinks reception and with a prize given at the end for the best website. It’s certainly whetted my appetite to do more, especially since our project team won best website design, but most of all for me it was the taking part and meeting kindred spirits who had the same shared passion to learn.

In recent weeks I have attended probably about 40 webinars given by a variety of providers on agile project management, data analytics in PR, marketing trends and design thinking. I am interested in technology and data and how it can be applied to marketing communications. Aside from meeting great people online, it has also been about meeting my heroes too. If you’d told me in the space of six weeks I’d be in a room with Rand Fishkin from Moz, Mark Ritson, Tom Fishburne and Belinda Waldock, I’d have found it hard to believe, but this lockdown has done that. It has put some of our key industry thought leaders and provokers at our fingertips.

For me, as well as learning, it is also about giving back and helping others. I have provided a list below of some of the links I have found useful. As a member of the CIPR and volunteer Committee member for East Anglia, I have been working with the team locally and nationally to co-host webinars, mentor colleagues who want to become chartered and to host training and guidance events. These resources can be found on the CIPR East Anglia website and the CIPR’s extensive database of learning.

If your interest in learning during lockdown has also been sparked, what are your goals? Or, if you have already embarked on a learning challenge since lockdown, what are you up to? I would genuinely be interested to hear about your learning experiences during lockdown. #lifelonglearning

Webinars resources

The Marketing Meet-up – founded by Joe Glover hosts physical and virtual marketing events around the UK and overseas – check out the recent blogs from industry greats.

Cambridge Network – a broad selection of industry focussed events and webinars

Marketing Week – The Lowdown – A series of prominent industry speakers share their thoughts on everything from humour and creativity to the importance of brand and leadership during COVID-19.

PR Insight – A series of podcasts and virtual events from PRmoment focussing on PR measurement and wider industry topics.

Business as unusual

Guest blog written by Barney Brown, Head of Digital Communications at the University of Cambridge and one of the speakers lined up for CIPR East Anglia’s postponed 2020 Best PRactice Conference. Barney writes about how the need for a new digital strategy for the University of Cambridge is more critical than ever in these unusual times.

Working for a University since 2008 has taught me that the ebb and flow of Digital Communications is expected to match that of term times rather than calendar years or financial years. In reality there has never been any ebb, perhaps because the University of Cambridge’s digital presence totals at least two thousand websites containing millions of web pages. Collectively these pages serve the needs of students, applicants, researchers, members of staff, the media, interested members of the public and beyond.

Trying to make sense of this digital estate, and how it can be improved to enhance user experience, simplify the maintenance of it and protect and promote the brand is at the heart of a five-year programme of work: The Digital Presence Programme. The focus of the programme, who was going to work on it and the scope of it were agreed and green lit just before the Coronavirus hit. That left the board running it with a dilemma, pause the work or prioritise it? As a co-leader of the programme alongside Kate Livingstone (a leader in User Experience at the University) we strongly advocated pushing forward.

Practically nobody at the University can avoid interacting with digital channels in one shape or another in order to work through their days, and that has meant an explosion of new content, adding to the mountain that already exists. So we’ve agreed to continue and in fact accelerate the work as much as we can. Principles that we had already started establishing around content strategy have been put to practice straight away in areas of our site like the Coronavirus pages, and a push to analyse and prepare for better uses of Intranets and collaboration tools has become a race.

At the core of the five-year programme is the idea that we assess what we have, what our audiences are and where they are, and how we can better use external vs internal channels, public vs private content. Our existing setup at the University has understandably resulted in nearly all content, irrespective of intended audience, appearing on monolithic public facing websites. These are now being audited and assessed. Do people always need new websites for new projects? In nearly all cases, the answer is no. Is a website, or conventional web pages the best solution for a problem? Increasingly not.

We are challenging ourselves to question the need for the over two million web pages that make up cam.ac.uk. What purpose do they all serve? How can we maintain them all? How can they be better designed to work across multiple devices, interact with authoritative sources of data, and bring in new audiences? All of this in an environment which rightly devolves the act of creation and publishing of content across hundreds of departments.

Now could have been the perfect opportunity to pause and take stock of a programme like this and question its relevance in the face of financial and practical pressures, but in reality we need it to start flying now more than ever. The approaches and processes we’re adopting to develop the programme are changing and evolving on a weekly basis which feels positive.

When we finally get back to our physical offices the work will continue in this new normal, and in truth I think the programme and all of us will benefit from it.

Let’s “nail this puppy to the floor”* freelancers!

I’ve been a freelance PR consultant for the best part of two decades, so I’ve seen a few ups and downs. When the 2008 crash hit, my client list was dominated by commercial property companies; a year later it had quite a different focus.

To even consider becoming a freelancer or independent consultant you’ve got to enjoy an element of risk, be adaptable, flexible and happy not to know what the next day, never mind the next month or year, might hold. You could say then that when the Covid-19 pandemic and the lockdown that followed came along we were better placed than most to ride the storm. Yes and no.

Yes, for the very reasons I’ve just outlined. We’re always expecting the unexpected: the client who doesn’t come good after promising the earth, the one who doesn’t pay, the one who suddenly reappears after going quiet. At the end of March, as employed people started working from home and you couldn’t move for blogs offering WFH tips we smiled wryly. But then even the home office (our comfortable territory) started to change. Most of us may have previously made the odd Skype call, but Zoom and Teams were as new to us as to anyone else.  Some of us also suddenly had other people in the house during the day – some of them even children! This was now an alien landscape for us too!

Then as Chancellor Rishi Sunak came back day after day offering goodies to different elements of the workforce, it slowly dawned on us many of us (those with limited companies) that there would be no safety net.  Of course we’re used to feast or famine, it’s how we operate. But this felt different.

I was extremely lucky to have picked up an internal communications client just before lockdown. This work suddenly became more urgent, decisions were being made more quickly and, because everyone felt in the same boat at home, I gelled with the team there much more quickly than if I’d been going in and out of their office. Interestingly it was internal comms that came up as one of the biggest opportunities for independents as we move through this crisis at a webinar for PR freelancers organised by the CIPR Independents’ Group and Women in PR this month. 

I’ve already said we’re good at adapting, and experts on the webinar also suggested that the nimble and cost effective nature of freelancers will put us at the forefront of the recovery. We just have to be ready for what’s out there, which could mean brushing up on or developing some new skills. Having said that, most experienced freelancers will have experience that fits most possible scenarios and can turn their hands to most comms-related activities.

If you’ve time on your hands you can also take advantage of the many experts offering free or very affordable online training, such as with the CIPR’s webinar series.  Also offering time and support has been the communications freelance community, which has pulled together through offers of support for struggling colleagues and via networking groups. Darren Caveney (a speaker at last year’s CIPR East Anglia Best Practice Conference) has for example set up a support group through WhatsApp, Slack and weekly Zoom coffee and Twitter chats.  I’ve found these a great support along with regular catch-ups with my colleagues on the CIPR East Anglia committee.

Like many others I’ve been re-watching favourite boxsets in lockdown, the most recent being W1A. So to borrow from the language of *Siobhan Sharpe from ‘pr company’ Perfect Curve: “Let’s do this freelancers, let’s ride this train, let’s nail this puppy to the floor!”

Judith Gaskell, Cambridge PR