View from a furloughed employee: coping when communications has been closed off

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Like a number of communications professionals, after getting over the initial shock of the fast-escalating lockdown in March, I quickly realised there were some quite exciting – and career-enhancing – challenges ahead of me as a comms professional wading through these unprecedented times and working out exactly how to position my company. Organisations including the CIPR clearly got this too, given the raft of webinars and discussion groups aiming to help share best practice both through the early crisis comms and beyond.

And having successfully navigated those initial ‘shutdown’ comms – closure of our offices and a switch to remote working; suspension of exams; postponement of our annual conference….I was relishing phase 2 – including how to communicate our restart, what the new ‘normal’ looked like for our business and what this meant for our various stakeholders. In my case these stakeholders are predominantly the media, who were certainly keen to update their readers on how my organisation, and others in the sector, were dealing with the crisis.

Then came the shock from work. The entire media relations operation was being suspended with staff going on furlough, leaving one communications professional to deal with all media outlay, both on a proactive and reactive basis. That’s been the situation now for the best part of two months.

Personally, furlough has had huge benefits. I’ve been able to look after my young family, for example, while my wife has (coincidentally) begun a new job, and we’ve enjoyed several great days out both close to home and, more recently, further afield. In addition, I’ve almost completed my CPD for the 2020-21 year, and undertaken other training courses – I now have at least an adequate grasp of how to create engaging video for mobile consumption, for example.

But professionally, it hasn’t felt great. To be away from the frontline at such an exciting time for those working in comms has been quite demoralising, but moreover to see my organisation decide that media is an unimportant and unnecessary channel during this time has frankly been quite worrying. While the company will no doubt present an argument that many can understand about the need at this time to retain current members and not seek others, this has, I believe, led to them failing to recognise that media can be just as useful a channel to engage our members as a flurry of ‘From the CEO’ emails. In addition, we’ve missed a very real opportunity to capture the vast market of students who are now less than certain as to their next academic or vocational move towards the workplace.

In addition, there’s a rather nagging doubt in my mind as to what life will be like when I do eventually get the call to return to work. Communications is so acutely ingrained with senior management – given it’s ‘their’ words that we are ultimately sharing with our stakeholders – that it’s tricky to know whether to return to pestering them for comments, views and sign-offs, or whether they want to continue low or no media engagement at this time.

There’s a mass of evidence, widely shared in the comms industry in the past few months, relating to previous crises and the importance of continued communications to various stakeholder groups in order to bounce back and achieve long-term success. I can’t help but think my company might live to rue not taking the lessons that history has taught us.

The author is a communications professional working in the Education and Skills sector.

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