Turning off to stay switched on
For many corporate communications professionals, one of the job’s attractions is something most rational individuals might consider a serious disadvantage: the need to be constantly ‘on’.
The rush of adrenaline that comes with being at the centre of a storm, from working in a fast-paced dynamic environment that requires not only an awareness of the latest news, but an understanding of the story behind the headlines, can prove addictive.
However, human beings cannot ride a wave of adrenaline indefinitely. During times of crisis, corporate press offices and communications departments are among the most stressful and unforgiving of workplaces, as well as some of the most rewarding.
But the desire to be ‘always on’ and instantly responsive to the needs of our employers and clients can be a weakness as well as a strength for communications professionals, especially when long-term reputations are at risk.
The nature of the coronavirus crisis is unprecedented, and not only because it spans the spheres of public health, economics, politics, education and business in almost every corner of the world.
It is also unique in that none of us who are engaged in trying to mitigate its effects can escape at the end of the working day and return to the refuge of our normal lives.
Several of us here at Charlotte Street Partners have weathered some of the biggest corporate reputational storms of the last 20 years. From the financial crash to terrorist attacks, industrial accidents to national emergencies, we have first-hand experience of managing communications during the most challenging of circumstances.
However, one luxury we were afforded in all those situations – regardless of how long the working day became, or how intense the public scrutiny – was the knowledge that at some point soon we would be able to hang up the phone, close the laptop, and return to a life outside of the crisis at hand.
There is, frankly, no existence outside of this current crisis, regardless of what line of work you are in. There is no escaping its harsh realities, even if you are able to park for a few hours the specific issues you are dealing with.
Many of the activities you would typically use to unwind, relax and distract yourself from the pressures of your job are temporarily unavailable. Pubs, clubs, shops, theatres, sports stadiums – and even our loved ones – are strictly off-limits.
It is nevertheless essential in the coming weeks that we all find a way to achieve some cognitive distance from work at the appropriate moments. People unable or unwilling to do so will, sooner or later, make bad judgements and damaging decisions, as well as compromising their own health.
Communications teams will need to put safeguards and rotas in place to ensure the burden of keeping a round-the-clock press office or employee comms function ticking over does not fall too heavily on any pair of shoulders. Some people may have to be ordered to take a break, for their own good if not that of the cause they are so determined to serve.
The nature of the smartphone technology we all have at our fingertips – with the attendant access to critical, real-time information – is a considerable advantage in this crisis. But the same qualities of universality and immediacy make that same technology a demonstrable risk in the hands of worn-out, overstretched people in charge of corporate Twitter accounts.
During a crisis, the opportunity to draw breath and take a break – as we were once able to do when the daily newspapers’ print deadlines had passed – no longer exists.
So this is a plea. Find a way, at regular intervals over the next few weeks, to take a break from your phone, your screen, your work.
Remember the standard helpdesk advice: switch off, go away and do something else, come back and switch on again. That should fix it.
Written by David Gaffney, Partner
25 March 2020