I remember during the financial crisis, when I still worked in a daily newsroom, that PR was still doing what you expected it to. Only less of it.

It was keeping busy, telling you stories about how to stay visible, get through the crisis, and be on your toes and ready to pick up the threads when the crisis was over.

Because normal service would be resumed. And it was, mostly. History shows us that we came out of what seemed like a financial disaster surprisingly quickly.

But now? This is a crisis like no other. It isn’t a financial crisis (though it will have a financial impact). It isn’t a war (though there are, sadly, many victims). And normal service is not possible right now. In some cases, normal may end up being permanently different.

Just how do you keep a brave comms face when you know that normal service isn’t going to happen? That you cannot deliver it? That you will let people down? That it’s possible that bad things will happen?

 

Drop the mask

 

Tiffany Jones, who is the director of comms & engagement at Nottingham University Hospitals Trust, flagged up on Twitter a brilliant example of the right thing to do: take off the suit, drop the corporate mask, forget the lines-to-take and just be yourself. An everyday human being.

It came from Homebase, the DiY chain. Like most retailers, its business has gone online during lockdown. And it hasn’t been plain-sailing: items not in stock, goods delivered late, complaints unanswered.

In normal times, this would have been all over the tabloid consumer pages: another big brand letting ordinary people down. But it wasn’t. In a two-minute online video, Homebase fessed up and admitted what had gone wrong and why. And it didn’t do it in the face of a corporate suit – it let its own people tell the story because they are the ones who normally serve you.

They didn’t sugar-coat it. They said what had gone wrong and why. They said sorry. They told a story of a team that had been struggling to adapt to a new normal, just like the rest of us.

So it turns out they were human. They were people like you and me.

We can all relate to that. What we are struggling with is messages which try to tell us everything’s ok when we can see that they’re not. That’s something Government itself has not got right. There have been conflicting messages about what we should do. About targets and whether we’re hitting them. About comparisons with other countries. There have even been some unsightly squabbles between ministers in the media. And an unelected background advisor taking centre stage.

This isn’t good.

In the end, one of the most powerful messages about how well we were really doing came from an organisation most people have never heard of: NHS Providers. It represents all NHS trusts. And it represented them well.

Its chief exec, Chris Hopson, tweeted out a report he’d written which outlined how the NHS was really doing. What it was short of, what it had enough of, where the system had fallen short. This was one of the best written and easiest to understand accounts of what goes on in a vast organisation that I’ve ever seen.

 

Comms is people

 

Once again, it didn’t sugar-coat reality; some stuff had gone wrong. It took a complex and deeply technical situation and told it in human terms. It also lifted the politics out and in place of that Westminster heat inserted simple facts. Some of the targets were unhelpful. Some of the targets we were hitting. Some we were not.

But the NHS was NOT on the verge of collapse. Far from it. And we’ve all seen why.

This is a human crisis. So comms about people, for people have worked best.

We don’t live in a perfect world. We never have done. Back in our normal world, there are great stories to tell about businesses, organisations, people and places doing amazing things. And sometimes making mistakes along the way.

But there is a better and more believable way to tell these stories.

Just tells it like it is when it goes well. And tell it like it is when it goes wrong. Fess up. Say sorry. Admit you’ve learned a lesson. We’re all on a journey and that’s how we make things better.

Richard Baker

Read more about our work with the NHS

For more on this subject CIPR Midlands are offering a free masterclass on Thursday 18 June: The challenges of responding to a rapidly evolving media landscape – book tickets via Eventbrite

(Picture by Ani Kolleshi, via unsplash)