A comment left by New Zealand PR consultant, Catherine Arrow, on a recent post on my personal Greenbanana blog indicated that the topic (the language of grief and a biopsychosocial perspective on mental health issues) was worthy of further investigation. The following is the result of our subsequent shared musings concerning the impact of crisis situations on the health and well-being of public relations practitioners. If you have any thoughts on this topic, we invite you to continue our conversation in the comments.
Heather Yaxley: Catherine, you mentioned that communicators working to help others during and after natural disasters in recent years in New Zealand may be suffering the same effects as the people they are trying to assist, yet have to suppress their emotions, seemingly indefinitely, in order to get the job done. How do you feel that practitioners, employers, professional bodies and academics can address this concern?
Catherine Arrow: We do a great deal to educate practitioners on the practical aspects of managing a crisis but rarely do you encounter a crisis plan which addresses the need for support for people involved with crisis communication. Crisis response starts at the planning stage – well before anything actually happens and all four groups of people you highlight have a joint responsibility for the well-being of those involved.
As practitioners we need to build in support mechanisms to any crisis plans – not just for the communications team but for all those likely to be involved in the situation. In an ongoing crisis, operating on adrenaline for a prolonged period of time can be – and is often – physically and mentally harmful. And that’s just managing the process. Add to that situations where the communicators have experienced personal loss – be that loss of life, loss of colleagues, loss of home – and the need for both physical and emotional support is paramount.
When advising on crisis planning I always advocate for a support team to be built into the plan and available on call, either to allow frontline teams simply to rest or as additional ‘hands on deck’ to alleviate the load, and a debrief team that steps in to cover when the initial crisis is over to allow time for first-responder respite leave. Understanding that we are not invincible, equipped with Thor-like powers that allow us to keep going indefinitely is a first step. Trouble is, if you haven’t experienced a crisis you have no idea how exhausting it is when you start your plan. If that’s the case, for your own sake and the sake of your colleagues, talk to people who have been at the sharp end and listen to their experiences – not of how brilliantly they did – but how they, as a human being, coped with the physical and emotional demands during and after the event.
Employers have an absolute responsibility to their crisis team but the reality is that many employers are reluctant even to begin crisis planning on the basis that it is too hard, it’s tempting fate or it simply won’t happen. Or the crisis plan is siloed in some hidden corporate corner completely out of date. Obviously health and safety legislation varies widely around the world, so prescriptive suggestions of what could – and should – be done are not necessarily useful. It may be that practitioners highlight the issue during planning discussions, engage with HR or their leadership team. I am sure there are statistics somewhere that record the number of employees who stick around long term after a crisis has occurred and if there aren’t, then there should be. Research suggests that organisations that experience a crisis take between seven to ten years to recover (if at all). Perhaps convincing employers that ongoing post-crisis support, including counselling and respite leave, could be tied to such statistics so the cost of losing experienced staff members post-crisis is understood.
Professional bodies should have a crisis support register operating in the same way as a mentorship scheme, so that members coming out of a crisis management situation can access peer support from those who have weathered storms, worked on business continuation and all the other elements of post-crisis existence. At PRINZ, following the February 2011 quake, I initiated an informal support register that offered basic equipment, volunteer communicators, accommodation – anything that members were able to help with in the awful aftermath. It was fast, informal and matching practitioners to need lasted only a few weeks but it was a small something from the professional body – and a something that I would like to see improved and formalised ready for next time. The addition I would make today would be resources for long term post-crisis support.
Again, I don’t know if research has been done, but as a profession we should be aware of, and document, incidences of PTSD that have arisen post crisis along with other aspects of individual health and well being. Last month, I was delivering training in Christchurch (still rebuilding six years on) and had a discussion around the word ‘resilience’. For the most part, people were sick of the term – building resilience, demonstrating resilience, being resilient – there was real resilience fatigue. Yet the capacity for resilience is something we need to examine. When pilots learn to fly, doctors to operate and astronauts reach for those stars they all undertake many simulations before moving on to the real thing.
I don’t think we do enough to prepare practitioners for all aspects of crisis management and (here’s where the academics come in) specific research on effects of crisis management on practitioners, maybe those stats I mentioned, and an examination of the personal traits necessary to deal with a crisis (and maintain resilience without long-term mental health problems ensuing) would be a start. Professional bodies through continuing professional development, universities and organisations themselves should run their crisis drills as simulations regularly – not just leave it as a document. At the very least develop a programme and run it through a headset – virtual preparation would give valuable insights into all aspects of the plan – and how we cope as individuals.
Heather: I’d like to talk about a couple of aspects from your insightful response. The first picks up on your mention of resilience and also the importance of integrating support mechanisms within crisis planning. Second, I’d like to consider more the notion of superhero status in crisis management. The two are connected, but I’ll start with resilience.
I like the concept of salutogenesis developed by Aaron Antonovsky where there is a focus on how people view a stressful situation (termed sense of coherence) and the resources they are able to deploy towards maintaining mental health (termed generalized resistance resources GRRs). [See: The Handbook of Salutogenesis by Mittelmark et al (2017).] The diagram below highlights a number of relevant ‘assets’, many of which I’ve come across within the career literature where the concept of resilience is also discussed.
One of the problems for me, though, with this focus is that it is almost entirely on individuals’ ability to adapt and their ‘internal local of control’. Public relations seems to reflect a largely individualistic perspective with little attention on systemic or structural factors and forces. My argument supports your points, that individuals need wider support. However, I’d like to see this in the form of practices such as collaborative communities of practice and what Yrjö Engeström calls negotiated knotworking.
Of course, such support networks need to involve those who are educated or at least have knowledge as well as experiences that can be drawn upon. I’d suggest that this peer-to-peer group approach can supplement more formal training and mentoring as you suggest. I envisage that employers, universities and professional bodies could perhaps facilitate such groups, but these need to remain fluid and driven by participants rather than being rigid and institutionalised. Their strength lies in their temporality and helping people to address particular individual or shared learning needs.
This leads me to my second area that of superhero status in crisis management – the Thor-like powers that you mention. It seems to me that there is an enormous focus within public relations practice and scholarship on high profile crisis situations that largely affect major organisations or state institutions. These are accompanied by dramatic narratives where organisations are vilified as villains – often with the situation framed as a PR disaster – or as heroes when crisis management has been enacted in a way that is deemed by the media and other commentators as meeting their expectations.
This perpetuates the impression of crisis situations as a high stake practice where only the ‘best’ PR practitioners are up for the job and receive high rewards as a result. It is probably no coincidence that major professional service firms (management consultancies and legal firms in particular) have established public affairs and PR divisions to offer crisis management expertise to clients.
I’d like to challenge this emphasis on the relatively rare type of crisis that generates global headlines and is truly a threat to the survival of an organisation/state institution and its reputation. In most of these cases the root cause of the crisis lies in poor procedures or management failures. Yet by acting as a superhero saviour regardless of the cause, public relations practitioners arguably absorb criticism and stress on behalf of the entire organisation. Surely we should be more realistic about the role of PR in such situations and where we can – and cannot – resolve underlying issues. Like most superheroes, we need to acknowledge our limitations.
Tying both aspects together, I advocate greater focus in public relations on routine incident management. The reality of PR practice is that the majority of practitioners encounter day to day incidents through which we develop capabilities in problem solving and management of acute stressful situations. If more emphasis and research was directed to investigating and discussing these less dramatic but more common situations, perhaps we would learn more to help develop resilience as an occupational asset. Less superhero power and more recognition of the strengths of professional practice perhaps?
Catherine: I’d not encountered Antonovsky’s concept before, so thank you for the reference. I’ll be looking at it closely but, at first glance, considering the ‘assets’, I would observe that while most practitioners I’ve met have all these assets in place, their daily working environment may, at any point, have drained or exhausted some of them so when a major crisis strikes (requiring superpowers) they are less able to deal with the subsequent events. This asset draining is equally relevant to all organisational employees and I wonder if it adds another dollop of workload for internal communicators and their role in the development of organisational culture and values, creating and nurturing an environment that doesn’t sap an individual’s assets.
I absolutely agree with the support networks you suggest and consider them to be a ‘missing link’ in current practice in many parts of the world. That said, the peers involved in the ‘peer-to-peer’ networks should undertake appropriate training and development so they can provide meaningful support and not succumb to rattling off war stories.
I also support your challenge to the crisis management stereotype that pervades our profession. The reality is that the majority of practitioners will navigate their careers without having to deal with the type of jaw-dropping crisis that dominates newsfeeds or natural disasters that devastate regions. However we all deal regularly with incidents, ranging from minor to critical. Fresh out of the newsroom many, many years ago, the first ‘significant’ incident I had to deal with was a large pet snake lost in the plumbing network of a council tower block. It wasn’t a crisis but it was a significant incident (not least for the residents faced with the potential arrival of an unexpected visitor during their ablutions). It also raised and led to long term issues around the keeping of pets, warning systems (this was long before the internet) and other internal processes.
All organisations – public or private – will experience incidents of one sort or another. Well educated practitioners will be aware that the art to reducing the number of incidents means identifying issues and risks before they become incidents – or evolve into a domino set of incidents that topple over into a full-blown crisis. Minimising incidents allows the practitioner (and the organisation) space to work strategically and proactively to develop and sustain the relationships they need to keep their licence to operate – rather than seeing that licence gradually eroded by regular incidents. That is the real superpower.
I would argue that relentless regularity of incident intervention is a major ‘asset-drain’ that leaves practitioners exhausted and demoralised, to the point where they move jobs or even careers, experiencing significant personal loss. Research and training needs to address not only the ‘how to’ of dealing with incidents but also equipping people with the skills they need to identify issues, manage risk, and action the necessary mitigating steps within the organisation, even when leadership teams resist such action – which is probably another conversation.
Returning to your point concerning resilience, some research into types of professional loss would, I think, be helpful in identifying which of the assets require strengthening to deal with varying states of grief that may follow the loss of a job, a colleague, a client, personal identity and self esteem following redundancy or restructuring – it is a pretty long list. The language used in the workplace to address loss is another part of the puzzle. Where do organisational support structures, say HR, operate and what part should internal communicators play? Not necessarily providing direct support but, as communicators, advising and helping HR, or whoever it may be, choose and apply their language with greater care?
Heather: The idea that acute crisis situations – and more chronic incident interventions – can be asset draining is fascinating. What it suggests to me is that instead of labelling individual practitioners as either resilient or not (in an absolute fashion), we can start to think about maximising the resilience of assets for health and well-being. These may, therefore, be accumulated through training, experience and other learning methods, and dissipated by stressful situations if they are not maintained and protected by individual, collaborative and organisational capabilities as we’ve discussed.
So rather than seeing these assets for health and well-being as inherent characteristics or personality traits that are sought during recruitment (trait theory is a rather dated career concept), they can be viewed as a form of capital. Indeed, I’ve found this line of thinking in a WHO report from 2012 (http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/170078/Is-Social-Capital-good-for-your-health.pdf). This talks about enabling and supporting people to achieve their full potential whereby:
“Assets for health and well-being should be taken into account as an important element in an innovative approach to translate this vision into action” .
Further, it argues that assets-based initiatives can promote self-esteem, resilience and coping skills. Research finds that enhancing individual social capital (concerning networks, norms and social trust) not only improves personal health assets but in turn contributes towards higher social capital at the community level. This reference to social capital supports your observation of the ‘superpower’ required by public relations practitioners (and their organisations) to work strategically and proactively to develop and sustain key relationships.
Consequently, yes, I agree with you entirely that a research project would be valuable to investigate these matters further. A literature review within other professional fields would be a good start to inform primary research into assets for health and well-being and their potential loss by public relations professionals in a range of circumstances and situations. It would be fabulous if such research could include an ethnographic approach.
Beyond this focus on public relations practitioners, I concur with your thinking concerning how additional research relating to languages of grief (loss) within corporate communications (internally and externally) would be valuable. Combining this with a relationship perspective that incorporated listening could help demonstrate the value of public relations – within which I include internal communications/relations – in addressing a strategic issue that is going to be of increasing concern to organisations as part of their corporate responsibilities.
I wonder also if there is not a wider societal dimension here too. Governments and civic society institutions are concerned about rising incidents of mental health issues and their impact particularly on specific sectors of society. This suggests a further strategic role for professional communications (including listening and relationship building) that could be evidence-based and realise a range of benefits for individuals, organisations and wider society.
If you agree that we have the makings of a really interesting project here, how do you think we could go about developing these ideas further?
Catherine: A good starting point would be to have the ideas discussed in more depth. Two events came to mind where perhaps our discussions could be taken beyond this conversation and into some action. One is the Mind the PR Gap conference in the UK on 12 July (bringing research and practice together). The other would be the 2018 GA Research Colloquium in Oslo that generally runs just before the World PR Forum. In the meantime, I’d love to see some PR association working parties taking a look.
There is absolutely a wider societal dimension to this and it also links to leadership, employee engagement as well as public relations and communications. Asset stripping in the corporate world is commonplace and recognised as a legitimate activity. What is seldom recognised – if at all – is the ‘asset-stripping’ of employees, generally thanks to poor leadership or bad management. I can think of numerous instances of leaders (and leadership teams) driving their employees to the brink of breakdown and beyond, eroding (if we go back to Antonovsky’s salutogenesis) coping, coherence, optimism, connectedness, empowerment and quality of life to highlight just a few. Failure to recognise and reward employee value has catastrophic consequences not just in terms of personal asset erosion but basic human need (as determined by Max-Neef’s Taxonomy of Human Need, which I prefer to the old Maslow hierarchy).
I’m thinking here of three examples I’ve encountered this week.
- Danielle Tiplady, the nurse interviewed by the BBC who loves her job, wants to do it but simply can’t afford to do it and meet basic needs. After the broadcast, she has become the subject of media vitriol because she is a Labour supporter and campaigner. Two strikes at her empowerment here – one from the pay cap and one from right-wing media outraged that she should be speaking out at all.
- Another example – Sarah Hope, knocked down by a bus driven by someone with road rage, whose attention has turned to campaigning for better treatment of staff so they are mentally and physically ‘fit’ to drive.
- Then there’s the ‘chasm that exists between upper management and the staff‘ at the Tate galleries where staff have been asked to contribute towards the purchase of a sailing boat for the outgoing director.
An exercise I run on my leadership development sessions is the ‘build-up/put-down’ slot. Generally everyone emits a little (or a loud) gasp as they analyse the times when they have eroded or chipped away someone’s core strengths and values, not because they are mean and nasty bosses, but because it can be done so easily and without even realising it’s happening.
For example, there’s Molly, over in PR, runs events brilliantly so gets turned into ‘the fixer’, overloaded with work that she isn’t actually employed to do. She responds to the orders and demands but gets behind in her ‘real’ work, leaving her feeling out of control and not coping. Working longer hours in a bid to catch up, her quality of life suffers and gradually she becomes exhausted. She misses some key issues and then suddenly a crisis hits the company – can she cope? Probably not – and if she does it will be at even higher personal cost. Add to that she’s paid 20% less than her male colleagues and the whole thing’s a recipe for disaster.
Your initial post about the languages of grief struck a chord with me for many reasons but perhaps the main one was this. Our world has shifted on its axis this past twelve months, tilted by the language of division, hatred and isolationism. For their own reasons – mostly self-interest – the fear mongers have done their best to separate people from one another. This fear, suspicion and polarisation affects all of us, whether we are building relationships in our neighbourhood or in global corporations. It instills a feeling of grief, of loss, of despair – an intangibility of disruption. Operating ethically and fairly in a post-truth, alternative-fact, opposition-shaming world is going to be quite the challenge for our professionals. And they’re going to be needing some support.
Catherine Arrow can be found via Twitter at @Caanz and Heather Yaxley is at @Greenbanana.
Their respective personal blog sites are: http://inconversation.typepad.com/prfromthebeach/ and https://greenbanana.wordpress.com/