Being a resilient communicator

The recent report on mental health and the public relations industry by #FuturePRoof highlighted the increasing prevalence of mental health in the PR industry and how it is often managed wrongly as a performance issue.

It makes for fascinating reading and I was not surprised that the findings highlighted the impact of long working days, the blurred lines between work and home, the 24/7 addiction to our screens, and trauma (particularly for those working in emergency services). What did surprise me though, was there was little mention of the job itself, the work we do, or the messages we handle every day, and its long-term impact.

When I joined the industry about 15 years ago, I remember one of my colleagues telling me that ‘you have to have a thick skin to work in this industry’. Now, although this is a point I certainly agree with, I also took from the conversation that I was subtly being told that I was not supposed to show any cracks, which is something I sadly listened to but certainly don’t agree with now.

Communications pro Bridget Aherne made an interesting point at a conference I attended. She spoke about crisis communications and briefly touched on the welfare available to frontline workers who are working in emergency situations. She then went on to talk about the impact of those emergencies on communicators, and her parting comment was to pose the question “what support is there for comms people?”

we are often the first port of call to hear bad news

As comms people, we are the first port of call when it comes to bad news. We are normally one of the first to know if there is an organisational restructure and that jobs are going to be lost, or the first to hear that a member of staff has been caught doing something they shouldn’t, and for many, the first to know if lives have been lost in a local emergency. Now, this is something we all sign up to when joining the industry and it is taken as a given with the role, but after a while the continuous flow of bad news and the responsibility of knowing information prior to anyone else can take its toll.

“the continuous flow of bad news… can take its toll”

I remember in one role, I had been dealing with a significant reputational crisis at a time when our organisation was going through a restructure and I was also facing some challenges at home. At the time I was ok, I performed in my role and I felt fine, but once the dust had settled and the situations had passed I started to feel agitated and anxious and wasn’t sleeping properly. Over time those symptoms passed, but only recently have I recognised that I had been suffering from stress.

Since then I have had many stressful situations come and go, and on a professional level I feel have managed to handle them well, but my resilience certainly took a bashing all those years ago and I started to recognise that my ability to bounce back wasn’t as strong as it used to be. Two years ago, I confided in an old manager about how I was feeling. She is someone I have the utmost respect for and it was one of the hardest conversations I had ever had. I didn’t want to admit to her, let alone myself that maybe my skin wasn’t as thick as I thought it needed to be.

Her response surprised me, rather than judging me and telling me to pull my socks up, like I thought she might, she told me she had been through similar emotions and that she had been on a mindfulness course that had changed her life.

She convinced me that I should book myself onto the four-day retreat in the middle of the Leicestershire countryside. I must admit I was reticent to attend, it all felt a little bit ‘fluffy’, but after the first day something started to feel different. That strange fluttering in my chest, I had lived with for so many months, had started to fade and my shoulders suddenly felt a little bit looser. By the end of the course, after spending four days sitting quietly in a little hut with ten strangers all from a range of professions and backgrounds, silently meditating and talking about some of our experiences, something clicked inside me and I felt I was starting to regain the peace I had mislaid four years prior.

Since that weekend, mindfulness and meditation has played a big part in my life. Taking just ten minutes out every day to clear my head has helped me to view situations differently and has given me back the confidence in myself and my abilities that I hadn’t realised was starting to erode.

Now, I am not worried or ashamed of saying I have struggled and have found a way through, but when I was asked to write this blog my first thought was, “wow I hope that this doesn’t impact negatively on my career and stop me from securing future opportunities and clients”. My second thought was: “if it does, then they aren’t the right opportunities for me.”

Every communicator I have had the good fortune to work with or meet in my life has been passionate about their careers and invests time and efforts in keeping on top of their game. I am thrilled that the professional bodies have recognised that the tools of our trade are not only the skills we have, but the minds we use to deploy those skills and are investing in supporting their members through research and mental health programmes. In 5 December 2017, the CMI Southern and CIPR Local Public Services groups are running a webinar on mental toughness and personal resilience at work. I hope it’s the first of many.

So, having shared my story with you, my advice is, don’t wait until you are feeling like your batteries are draining to invest in your mental health. Take the time now to put the scaffold in place that will help you to continue to operate to the highest levels when dealing with that crisis or that post-emergency fallout, and talk about how you feel (I love the tips in this article from the Government Digital Service). As my mum says, you can always buy a new computer if that stops working, but who is going to replace you when you break?

Blog by Holly Bremner

 

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