Step up, not away

Nurses and doctors are recommended to retake basic life support training every six to twelve months, regardless of how many decades they have been practising. This is not because the requirements change significantly. It’s because despite constantly working in a medical environment, when people are faced with a crisis situation they can go blank and forget everything they’ve learned. The training needs to be embedded so that it’s easily mentally accessible and can over-ride a flood of adrenalin that can be paralysing.

We’re currently in a crisis situation (not that anyone needs telling) and as leaders of organisations we need to be doing the same thing. We’ve all been trained or learned about good comms in a crisis, about leadership skills, motivation and creating a strong work community. How much of it are we actually remembering to use?

As humans, we fight, flight or freeze in extremis. We’re all feeling vulnerable about ourselves, our families and our businesses. It’s our responsibility to quieten down our own anxieties at work as much as possible (without negating them, obviously, and making sure we address them appropriately outside work) and lead our teams to a working day that’s as productive and calm as possible.

In terms of our own survival through this, there is no disgrace in seeking help. There’s been an outpouring of love to the NHS, there’s been huge community support and neighbourhoods drawing together, ironic in a time of isolation. As business leaders we tend to close down as part of our desire to project a calm exterior, but that does not mean we are not in great need of support from each other. We don’t need to pretend to each other that everything is fine; huge support and comradeship can be exchanged by simply ringing a contemporary at another organisation and finding out how they’re feeling, what they’re doing, what they’re winning at and where they are feeling challenged.

Some organisations have behaved badly during this crisis in the way they have treated their staff. There’s no need for me to name them as you all know who they are, and you will remember who they were when this is long gone. That’s the point. People have long memories and they will remember the companies and the individuals who stepped up and behaved well.

Just as there are a few pub chains who might find themselves with fewer customers than they had pre-virus, and we might be buying our trainers elsewhere, in a year’s time people within our organisations will remember how the senior leaders behaved. In the words of the great Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Pause for applause

We’re learning and changing as a result of this virus. We’ve all used the term “quarantine” more in the last fortnight than ever before, everyone’s figured out that furlough doesn’t meant what they thought it did, that their parents have no understanding of the word “essential” and realised that we’re never going to under-estimate the joy of a trip to the pub again.

Also, everybody who has been attempting to home-school their children now has the fervent belief that all teachers should be paid at least £46,000 per day.   Similarly, Priti Patel’s “low skilled workers” have suddenly become the people that are keeping the nation going – the shop assistants, agricultural workers and care providers.  Doorstep milk deliveries feel like a minor miracle, we’re hugely grateful to refuse collectors for keeping the service going and the fact that letters are still plopping on to the doormat seems incredible.

Loving the invisible forces that keep us going brings me on to IT.  I work in tech so obviously I’m more aware of the work that goes into producing the systems that keep the office going, but so many people aren’t.  IT departments are the butt of jokes (looking at you, ‘IT Crowd’), and can be seen as unhelpful or deliberately oblique.  Without them though our working lives would grind to a halt under normal circumstances but under this lockdown work would be utterly impossible.   Those in IT are obviously highly skilled workers but I’m still not sure they get the recognition they deserve.

A video did the rounds of social media earlier today of a woman lambasting two telecoms workers for digging up a pavement to fix a connection.  In her view this was inessential work, noisy and intrusive, and broke the lockdown regulations.  In what world is telecoms an inessential service?  Not this one, where vital medical information and access to life-protecting services are all accessed through the internet.

Like I’m sure you have, I’ve been out clapping for the NHS and all those on the front line.   Of course we should be aware and appreciative more often of the outstanding contribution these citizens make.  It shouldn’t take a global catastrophe to make us aware of their work.  Along with everything else coronavirus is teaching us about society, however, hopefully after this we’ll stop and think every now and again of the unsung heroes across different industries, tech included.

Now we’re really self-isolating we’re realising the part we each play in society.  Maybe we’ve actually been self-isolating all along, in entirely the wrong way – it’s time to step up and keep this momentum going.

Caution! News is contagious

Anyone else struggling to concentrate with constant news updates coming in about coronavirus?  Countries being put on lockdown, infection figure updates…    Working in PR we’re obviously used to a quick news turnaround, indeed we capitalise on it, and we’re very adept at filtering out the facts from the noise.  There are times though when a 24 hour news cycle simply adds to stress levels rather than helping us feel reassured.

We first saw this phenomenon in the news coverage after 9/11.  The same shots of the horror were used time and time again which meant we either became desensitised or repeatedly suffered the adrenalin rush of shock.

Of course, information is power and we all need to be informed, but you can afford to turn off your news feed for an hour or two.  Give your nervous system a break.   We don’t need to be breathless spectators to everything.

And in the meantime…go and wash your hands.

2020 – the year of the loo roll

“Of course, they’ve been predicting something like this for years,” says one person in every ten, smugly.  Or alternatively “Actually it’s been around for years, it’s only just come out”.  Everyone’s an expert.  Medical science has predicted that a pandemic could be on the cards, yes.  But which of us could have predicted that 2020 would have been the year of the loo roll?

That’s one of the fascinating things about using data to predict human behaviour.   Social media, online shopping, what we buy, where we go, the form of transport we use and the media we consume creates data sets that are intended to create a profile of us, what we like, what we hate, who we hang out with and what we do.  As individuals we like to imagine we’re mavericks.  One-offs.  Something being able to predict our behaviour can feel sinister or at the very least, make us feel slightly boring.  We’re not one in a million, we’re one in a flock.

And yet there is something charming about it when it goes wrong.  Say you’re online shopping for a new kitchen bin and the algorithm proudly announces that “other customers that bought that kitchen bin also bought a leopard print tent”.  Same with your e-reader, when you’re ploughing through the latest Hilary Mantel and it decides to suggest that your next book should be a cowboy romance novel.

The fact that you’ve got no intention of buying a leopard print tent or reading a cowboy romance novel gives you a distinct sense of relief.   You see? I AM a maverick.  You don’t know EVERYTHING.

The fact that we are profiled and targeted to create patterns of behaviour should be there to provide us with a better experience.   Remember Minority Report, the Tom Cruise film?  The hero walks through a subway and the adverts change to target his specific needs.  Not the needs of men like him, but him.   This scenario is truly not far off.

To some people this represents the ultimate in manipulation and they have a point when it comes to political messaging.   What data sets and complex analysis do not take into account, and cannot take into account, though, is mood.  Humans are triggered by sounds, the mood of the people around us, what we’ve eaten, what we’ve seen, the music we’re listening to…how many of us have had our mood lifted by catching a long-forgotten song on the radio?  Just that one jump in mood has changed the tone and altered every decision we’re going to make that day.

So there we are.  The fact that we’re slightly more flighty creatures than some sinister computer overlord would like us to be is what will save us.  That when we’re faced with a global pandemic that involves respiratory problems, we respond by buying loo roll and pasta.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going online to buy a leopard print tent.

Flexible friends

Well, it turns out that flexibility means more to millennials than just yoga.  This is the generation that’s going to be dominating our workforce in 2020, and according to a survey by Business Leader magazine, around 74% of millennials pay as much attention to flexible hours and telecommuting in job ads as they do to salary.

That makes sense.  This is a generation who has done homework on the beach, booked GPs appointments online at 10pm and considers a real-life trip to the supermarket a novelty.  Sitting in banked rows of desks is not only profoundly unappealing, it goes against any way they have learned or operated before.

For a long time working from home was seen as only of real importance to those with children and complicated nursery pick-ups, but flexible work policies are now competitive benefits and are viewed by millennials as having the same value, if not more so, as monetary reward.  It’s the same in the US, where annual survey by finance company MetLife showed that 3 in 10 employees report that they would actually be willing to trade a higher salary for better benefits, which included flexible working.

Debt repayment programmes, season ticket loans and genuine emphasis on work life balance have real resonance to a generation that is starting its working life in debt and has often witnessed Boomer Burn-Out at first hand.   They’re highly unlikely to be home-owners so freedom to travel is a huge priority.  An extra £1000 on a salary isn’t going to take them anywhere near a deposit on a home, so it’s easy to see why for young people facing an uncertain financial future, freedom is the preferred priority.

Millennials also put emphasis on working for organisations with a moral core and good ethics. For example Greggs the bakers, the majority of whose staff earns £8.38 per hour, offers a profit share scheme, (10 per cent of profits are shared among staff) and paid out £7m to staff, which worked out at £300 per employee.  This earned the company some fantastic PR, quite rightly, as £300 gets you a LOT of vegan sausage rolls.  No-one’s going to actually turn down money, millennial or not, but the principle behind the gesture, the simple share out, made it very appealing.

The spotlight’s now on us as employers to offer candidates what they want…which isn’t necessarily what they’ve wanted in the past.  Just like sneering tabloid stories about millennials “wasting their money on lattes and avocado on toast” had furious twentysomethings responding that they’d have to do a lot more than give up breakfast to get anywhere near enough for a deposit on a house, it’s important we understand that the world is entirely different for these young recruits and that rejecting salary in favour of benefits works for their world, even if it would not have worked for ours.  We’re not in Kansas any more.

Back of the net

The chief executive of the Chartered Management Institute, Ann Francke, was quoted this week as saying that women felt “uncomfortable” in the presence of men at work talking about sport as this could lead to banter and “talking about their conquests at the weekend”.

We’re very much hoping that Ms Francke was wildly misquoted in the press as there are a number of questionable sentiments coming out of this.

What about women that are interested in sport?  Does this not apply to them?  If you’re interrupting a conference call to talk about transfer news then fair enough but that obviously applies to both genders.

Also how could talking about Trezeguet’s goal lead to talking about your conquests?  Unless you actually dated Trezequet in which case, fair play.

This is starting to sound like the spluttering reaction from some quarters to the #metoo movement, ie “but I daredn’t even shake a woman’s hand now without worrying!”  Well as has been pointed out many times before it’s not hand-shaking women don’t like, it’s bottom patting.  One’s appropriate, one isn’t.  Just like we don’t need a blanket ban on physical contact between men and women at work we also don’t need to stop people talking about their hobbies if others are interested.  If others are harrumphing, checking their watches or visibly nodding off then maybe re-think your conversational choices.  It’s that simple.

Ballou’s take on this?  We’re really not sure this is something genuine to worry about, but if you replace the word “uncomfortable” with “bored” then Ms Francke, we’re right with you.


The Real Responsibility Index

Tortoise Media has produced the Responsibility 100 index of the UK’s biggest companies, inspired by how these organisations matched up against the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.

While sustainable development is obviously vital, bearing in mind that according to the UK Health and Safety Executive more than half the sick days in Britain are taken due to work-related stress, anxiety and depression, as employers our own responsibility index should focus on helping our employees avoid being physically damaged by their careers.

This is not hyperbole. Studies show that “burnout” (feelings of demoralisation, fatigue, and irritability) may precipitate a fatal heart attack or stroke, or prompt chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes or dementia. The European Journal of Preventive Cardiology’s research* has shown that people suffering with these symptoms associated with work stress have a 20% higher than normal risk of arrhythmia, which increases the risk of stroke and heart attack. Post-stroke or cardiac episode, if your stress continues you are more likely to suffer another one.

Permanent fatigue and stress increase our production of stress hormones which can damage heart tissue and increase inflammation throughout the body. A study in Denmark** found that workers with strong burnout symptoms were 30% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

Worryingly, there’s no quick fix here. Those with burnout can often still show symptoms 18 months after conditions have changed. It’s not just older people that are affected; stress and the demands placed on responses and effectiveness are the key components, not the age or status of those affected. Late diagnosis and treatment also means that exposure to these stress hormones can actually change brain chemistry and give sufferers a negative world view which has a hugely damaging effect on their entire lives, not just their careers.

There are protective measures we can take as individuals to avoid burnout. Manage expectations, be assertive about your needs, report damaging situations or relationships, take advantage of flexible working and respect your own health and self-care. All of these though rely heavily on a responsible employer.

Taking our share of responsibility for the well-being of our colleagues and employees is essential. It’s not easy, it’s nothing to be complacent about and as the world of work evolves so quickly it has to evolve with it. A glib mention of “work-life balance” in a job ad or mission statement is not going to cut it. Acknowledging our part in it and taking that responsibility could literally be a matter of life and death.


**2017 Journal of Psychosomatic Research

Dominic Cummings WLTM….

Dominic Cummings’ job advert, looking for “super-talented weirdos” with “genuine cognitive diversity”, is doing the open-mouthed rounds of the broadsheets and has generated hysterical mirth on social media.  But how odd is it?

The phrase “genuine cognitive diversity” is slightly troubling as it suggests a) that people are likely to fake it and b) that he’s going to be able to tell. He does mention though that if you are the wrong fit he’ll be able to spot you within a week and you’ll be out on your fake cognitively diverse ear.

Moving on. Firstly, Cummings is obsessed with data, and attributes the Tories’ recent landslide to the campaign’s use of targeted information…that explains the economics graduates (although he does graciously say you don’t necessarily have to be Oxbridge).

Secondly, he mentions “…true wild cards….people who never went to university….”    At Ballou our intake features a diverse cross-section of recruits, although happily none of them “fought their way out of a hellhole” so they probably wouldn’t be of much interest to Mr Cummings, which is fine by us as we’d like to hang on to them, thank you very much.

The part that does strike a chord with us is his request for people who “want to figure out what characters around Putin might do, or how international criminal gangs might exploit holes in our border security”.  Any candidate that thinks globally, obsessively follows the news, creates and substantiates theories and predictions on business and society, is going to be a hit with us.  If you’ve just spent three years sweating through university and still had time to read the FT and the Wall Street Journal and have serious thoughts about the new Eastern Europe then you’re our kind of candidate (so give us a try before you hit up Dominic Cummings, please).

However, he also specifies being keen on a “Chinese-Cuban free runner from a crime family hired by the KGB”.  Good luck with that one, Dominic.

It’s good to talk…unless you’re a millennial

It’s now 30 years since Jerry Seinfeld said that a ringing phone was the equivalent of someone perched on the edge of your desk screaming “I WANT TO TALK TO YOU NOW! I WANT TO TALK TO YOU NOW!” If you have a millennial in your life, your office or your home they’ll identify with that.   Try ringing them from an unknown number and watch their horrified expression. Ever tried getting them to answer their phone? They won’t. They’re too busy using it to message, send a Whatsapp, use as a torch, a calculator, a radio or even a paperweight to hold down all that boomer A4. Anything but…talk.

Some of the young people we see at interview and when they start at Ballou are phone resistant in the extreme. Unfortunately though for successful PR pitching the phone is still vital – not for the initial contact maybe, but certainly to get feedback on the idea, on the issues around it or any other strands that may lead to more coverage. There is nothing more dispiriting than looking at a list of publications with the word “pitch email sent, no reply”.

So what’s the problem? Much research has been done into the phenomenon of telephonophobia among the young and companies are sending their new recruits on phone confidence courses. Whether it’s fear of rejection, fear of failure or simply the novelty of speaking rather than tapping, here’s how you can help those with phone-fright in your office

  1. If you’re overcome with shyness on the phone, having to make the call in front of your co-workers makes the situation even worse. So give people a quiet room in which to do their calls or sanction going to a quiet area outside the office.
  2. Let them role-play the conversation with you before they do the first call.  Anticipating what the responses might be gives more of a feeling of control and calms the nerves.
  3. Don’t dismiss or under-estimate the nervousness. We all got anxious doing phone pitching at first and if you’re over 30 then you were brought up speaking on the phone…
  4. A little training on performance can do wonders – treat the phone pitch as a mini-public speaking slot and ensure breathing is right, shoulders are down, voice is slow, calm and confident.
  5. Many people are more confident standing up and walking around when talking on the phone. Don’t tether people to landlines if you don’t have to.

It’s tough, but until journalists are happy to accept pitches via TikTok then we’re all going to have to make friends with the phone. And if we phone-pitch veterans are ever tempted to feel superior about telephonophobia, give it twenty years. We’ll be struggling to cope with the new tech on the block and the millennials will be sniggering at us. Plus ça change.

May you live in interesting times

Humans like certainty.  From horoscopes to weather forecasts, we love feeling we’ve stolen a march on unpredictability by anticipating the future.  As we enter 2020 though, prediction suddenly seems like a much trickier game than usual.  Brexit, climate change, impeachments, unstable international relations, …the one consistency we’re guaranteed this year is inconsistency.

Rather than mourning the loss of stability, we can try and embrace change and difference.  It’s a positive we can draw from turbulent times.  #metoo was a hugely positive change that has shaken the worlds of business and entertainment.  Greta Thunberg appeared from nowhere and helped an entire generation think about their future.   Who knows what the state of the world will be when we write a blog post in 31 December 2020 – it may be a daunting thought from where we are now, but there WILL be positives.  Honestly.

A happy and prosperous New Year to all, from Ballou PR.