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Talking Comms is a podcast for the modern professional communicator, reflecting the industry we work in, sharing best practice, and telling the best human stories. Email us at or tweet us @talkingcommspod.

Episode 13: transcript

Apr 14, 2020

Adrian:           Hello Darren,

Darren:           Hi, Ade, how are you?

Adrian:           I'm very well. You sound quite echoey. Where are you? I can see you but tell the listeners where you are.

Darren:           I'm actually sat in my kitchen. I've taken to working in the kitchen this week. So, I think I'm that little bit closer to the fridge.

Adrian:           I see. It's going well then, is it?!

Darren:           Yeah, definitely the calorie intake has risen this week, but I’ve been playing football in the back garden with Will every day. So hopefully that counterbalances it bit.

Adrian:           I braved Sainsbury's yesterday. It was okay to be fair. It was okay. It wasn't as bad as I was expecting but I came out with so much chocolate, you wouldn't believe. Because I thought I'm not being parted from this. If this gets worse… then I'm going out with a bang is what I'm saying.

Darren:           How are you? I'm guessing, you know hearing from in-house teams, you know, you've literally never been busier and I’m hearing people pulling really long hours. How are you coping?

Adrian:           I'm coping alright, I think, yeah. So, what are we now so as we record this we’re kind of towards the end of the second week of the full lockdown and yeah, it's been relentless. I have become a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. I've been an internal comms person, I've been IT help desk, I've been a web specialist. Oh, you know, you name it, I've probably done it in the last week or so. I'm working from home. I'm dealing with people day-to-day who are still on the front line, still going out and still providing those Services providing services to actual vulnerable people. So, I think it's disruptive, it's not that pleasant. But you know what, it could be so much worse. We've sprung back up out of nowhere and we're going to be doing a few more of these kind of coronavirus comms podcasts, aren’t we, Darren? So, we just thought we've obviously got you know, plenty to be doing other than this, but we'll just sort of pop up and just give people a bit of a bit of insight, a bit of fun, that kind of thing.

Darren:           It sounds right up my street.

Adrian:           And, listeners, you need to listen right towards the end because there is something quite spectacular on the way, but more of that anon.


Darren:           So, running your own communications business can feel a little bit isolating at the best of times. Given the lockdown we’re obviously all going through right now, I thought it might be good to be a bit proactive and to do something for us comms consultants sat wallowing around the UK. So, I had this idea of setting up a virtual support group of comms consultants. I thought I put it out there on Twitter and actually 30 people have joined already, so that's good to see. I think it's been really useful so far providing support and advice and just being able to check in with people who understand, and get, and are in a similar situation. So, we thought it'd be really interesting to talk to two of those consultants on the Talking Comms Pod, one who's been around in business for about 18 months and one for less actually, just for a couple of months. So, I’m going to ask first, Shavaun, if you could introduce yourself and just tell us a little bit about you and your business.

Shavaun:       Thanks Darren, and thanks for hosting this podcast. It's a real pleasure to be here and loving the group that you've established. I saw the invite on Twitter and thought ‘why not?’, now’s a great opportunity to take part in those sessions. So, I've recently joined the world of independent consulting. I'm in the process of actually establishing my business, Seen and Heard Communications. And if you're detecting an accent, your ears aren't deceiving you. I was born in South Africa and travelled to the UK about 23 years ago, and I've worked in the field of communications all my life in agencies or in-house. My last role was at the MIB, Motor Insurers’ Bureau, as the chief comms officer there and I was responsible for the delivery of comms strategy across MIB stakeholders, which are vast. They span the insurance sector, solicitors, government, reaching out to uninsured drivers to change their behaviour; and also managing internal communications for MIB staff of which there's about 500 staff.

Darren:           Ben, could you say a little bit about yourself for those that don't know you?

Ben:                Yeah, Hi guys. Pleasure to be – I'm going to say back – on the podcast because when I first started out in July 2018, Adrian very kindly invited me on to talk about my new business, as it was then, that I had one client for and two days paid work – and thankfully since then it's got a bit better. So, I run a little consultancy called Grey Fox Communications and Marketing. I'm pretty much a one-person band and I do the majority of my work in the public and third sector and higher education as well. I do pretty much anything you want me to do, apart from media relations. That's my red line because there's other people who do that far better than I do but most of the stuff I do tends to be more kind of comms strategy-based stuff.

Darren:           Yeah, brilliant, and also father to the most famous boy in Liverpool now?

Ben:                This week at least, yeah, definitely. Definitely. My little boy Fox was retweeted… well, he was actually videoed by Liverpool City Council. So, when we are getting onto fantastic examples of public sector calms during coronavirus, he did a little sign to say thank you to the bin-men – or the refuse operatives, as I think they’re properly known – in Liverpool because he's a huge fan and the council came up to do a little video of it. I think at current count, it's had about 45 thousand views. So, I'm currently like his agent, he’s definitely the most famous boy in Liverpool this week at least anyway.

Darren:           I suppose the obvious first question to kick off with is: how are you coping with the crisis from a work perspective and as a relatively new agency?

Shavaun:       I'm going to say it's a challenging time to be pitching work, for any team out there, whether you're an independent or a larger agency and I think in-house teams are understandably maxed out. They'll be heads down delivering the best they can at this point in time. I suspect they'll need some, you know, resuscitation and help at some point. And I think that's where you know people like ourselves can come in, as you know steady, trusted hands to hand over to. But for now, I'm just using the time to gather information about potential needs in the marketplace, which I think are shifting. You know, the dynamics of what people needed from communications three months ago is very different to what they're going to need for communications over the next sort of 12 to 18 months, I think, for their brands and businesses. So, I'm looking at how I can pitch my services to help them either re-establish confidence in their brand and their reputation, you know manage that from a strategic perspective. Help them think about how they might structure their communications teams differently or better to prepare for these sorts of communications crisis events. And perhaps weave communications more strategically into their planning of their business resilience and risk management from a reputation perspective. So that's how I'm coping with the crisis from a from work perspective at this moment in time.

Ben:                I mean absolutely could be worse, no doubt about that. I think I have been really busy. I think I've had a couple of fairly large pieces of work postponed – completely understandably – and from the client’s perspective completely the right thing to do. But from my perspective, because this game is ultimately about putting food on the table at home, this is very much the sharp end, and this is to some extent the sum of all our fears when you start consulting. People sort of tend to look at consultants when times are great and they look at you sort of like working on a laptop in a coffee shop and you know keeping your own hours and walking the dog in the middle of the day and think oh, that looks great – and it is great when it's good. It's great. But the downside of it is when things like this happen you are literally left looking going, ‘how do I buy food next week?’. Now thankfully for me that is not bad but that is very much the cost of living like this, if that sort of makes sense. And you know, we've been sort of unlucky to some extent to live through this very unprecedented time, but you know short answer is not that bad, a bit anxious but definitely could be worse.

Adrian:           And Shavaun, Ben touched on it there in terms of the work that’s either been lost or postponed. Can you give us some information your perspective how much of your work is lost? Is there an empty diary but lots of promises for work in the future?

Shavaun:       You know, I started a quite a few conversations with people in January and February and I took some time out in February to visit family in South Africa to look after my mum who’d had an operation. So, in early sort of February and those conversations were coming to fruition at the beginning of March there were quickly shelved, and people are deciding it's not a good time to bring on a freelancer. And I think that's wise. If I was an in-house communicator, if I was any other member of staff and I knew that the business leaders were making decisions to furlough staff members whilst bringing on a freelancer to help them get by, I'd question the morality and ethics of that. You know, I don't think I'd feel comfortable coming on board doing that piece of work either.

Darren:           I’m interested really, lots of coverage both in our virtual comms consultants’ group and also in the media about government support. How and where is that government support of use to you right now, I’m quite interested to know.

Shavaun:       I mean, I think the timeline around the government support that was being made available to business, I think most people whether you're a small business, you know, an independent business owner or a large business, when you hear the word, there's government support for businesses you include yourself in that sort of umbrella phrase. And then you start to unpick the you know, the terminology the fine print of what the government is offering and I think it's fair to say I think most of us I would agree that it's been fairly confusing and ambiguous about what the government support was going to be for businesses where owners and directors were effectively the only employee in the business than either, you know, self-employed or a sole-trader. They are a small business owner and they are their only employee and they can't furlough themselves. So that's where I sit and I haven't paid myself a salary yet because I haven't invoiced anyone for work and so from a PAYE perspective, I sit well outside the boundaries of what the government support is going to be made available. That said, I think the government has taken really significant steps to offer some pretty robust forms of help for businesses. And I think the way I look at it from my perspective is that the key industries that the government can support, and has prioritised its support to, are those larger businesses that actually can help stimulate and revive parts of the economy. And if those businesses start to do the right thing by supporting their staff and supply chain (of which we might be one of those parts of the supply chain) I think we could start to benefit. That doesn't mean that you know, there's money immediately available and I think those people who are struggling to put, you know food on the table for their families in the positions that we are where you have your own business, I think they're going to face some stark choices. They're either going to have to seek, you know permanent or contract roles if they're available, or find alternative to get an income. So, from Ben's perspective, you should think seriously about farming out his kid for work. If your son is a prodigy, maybe you can make you some money, Ben.

Ben:                Don't think we haven't already thought that! I think a lot of what Shavaun says is completely right which is you know, let's look at it positively firstly which is that there's no doubt that what the government has put forward to support the business is massively significant and unlike anything that's ever happened before. And that's good and I think you know, they deserve credit for that. However, there is some pretty big loopholes in that that means that you know, people aren't really going to benefit unless you fit very specific criteria. So, for example, my business is a limited company, but as I said earlier, I'm a one-person band. So, I think of myself as a freelancer actually technically I'm not freelance, I actually am a director of a company, which kind of feels weird to say that, and the way I get paid is I take a very small salary for the business every month so that I keep up with my PAYE and my National Insurance contributions and stuff, and the rest of what I live off is dividend, it's a share of your profit that you take out of your business. Now that means I kind of essentially fall through the gaps in that respect. And I know there's quite a lot of people have been asking that sort of question. Now, there's a couple of points on that. When people look at when people think of the word ‘dividend’, they think ‘oh well, people – for who a big part of their income is dividend – aren't going to be helped by the government, I can hear an orchestra of the world's smallest violins playing, don't get me wrong. However, taking a dividend isn't just like Sir Philip Green taking out billions of pounds out of the business to buy another Caribbean island, but people like me, it's again how I pay the bills at home. So, it is a problem and I think the second sort of problem with that is that there's the whole furloughing thing. I didn't know what furloughing meant before this happened…

Shavaun:       You are not alone!

Ben:                Hopefully that leads to lots of other people, you know with that obvious admission as well, but on a serious point, what I can get from the government is I could get 80% of that small salary that I take out the business every month, which is great. And you know, that is really good. But the problem is I have to quote unquote ‘furlough myself’ to do that and that basically means I have to sort of temporarily make myself redundant and do zero work. Now, that sounds like a simple solution and thankfully for me, it's not really something I have to do because currently there's enough work in the diary. Well, I just kind of think about it like this: if before this crisis I had let's say 20 days of work in my diary next month and that all went down to five days and those five days weren't enough for me to live off, should I be saying to that client who probably really needs me to do that work: ‘No, sorry, I'm not doing it because otherwise I can't get government support’? I mean, it's a bit of a crazy situation to be in and I'm not discounting that that situation may occur how ever long this goes on. So I suppose the thing for me with that is that yes, the government support is brilliant, but for me, I've got two main sort of objectives getting through this period: one, to sort of keep the show on the road as long as I possibly can without having to seek any support; and two: it’s to come out the other side of it in decent shape and I think that's probably the case for most businesses big, small, or medium. And if I'm saying no to doing work that have agreed to do and clients really want, that's really not going to help me to do that. So the support the government is offering is undeniably big, it's impressive, it's welcomed, but there is big kind of loophole for people who operate a model like I do, and I'm by no means unique in that, there's lots of one-person bands that are ultimately limited companies who pay themselves in the way I've just described that will find this really difficult.

Adrian:           And Shavaun, how are you coping with for example your mental health at this time? Because it must be playing on your mind, it must be quite uncertain. How are you dealing with those cards?

Shavaun:       Yeah. I think it's really important to you know… you've got to balance your needs, business needs and I have a family as well that I need to look after. And so I've always practised good mental health and wellbeing practices effectively. So, walking and eating well, staying off social media. You have to know when to walk away and quit and sometimes the stuff that you're reading, that you're seeing, it can really be quite damaging, and it doesn't leave you feeling sort of fulfilled or productive or even happy. So, I think it's really really important to switch off. I think getting a good form of exercise every day and making a really great meal for yourself or your family. I'm finding that really works for me at this point in time. And I have my son who's doing his home schooling at the moment. Well, it's at least till end of this week. And so, I'm occasionally diving into some of his tasks and challenging myself with how to add my penny’s worth into those, which is good fun. I don't know whether it's good for his mental health or not! But I think having a routine as well is really really important. And then I'm also using this time to invest in myself. You know, I think your professional development is something that you have to invest in all the time. So, I'm doing TED talks and LinkedIn stuff and reading books that just, you know, help me as well.

Ben:                I think I've picked up some really bad habits if I'm being really honest with you, but there's a lot out there to kind of help. And I suppose to some extent, this situation has forced us into some better habits as well. A bad habit I’ve picked up is working really late and getting up really early. And the getting up really early is looking at a computer screen from seven o'clock in the morning and then going to bed late is looking at a computer screen past midnight. That is, to some extent, because of as I say, my wife and I we have a four-year old child at home now, and we're doing stuff all day and so the normal working day doesn't really apply. So, you end up just kind of doing things after he's gone to bed and all that kind of stuff which means you end up working kind of late and staring at your computer screen far too late. So that's not great. However, however, I do really value the one time I'm allowed to go outside every day. I must admit I really do value that probably more than I ever did. The one thing I was really gutted about was about a year and a half ago I started running and I've got really into running, I really love it now, and the fact that I've had to really scale that back has been quite gutting. But there are days when I'm really busy working where I can't go out for the dog walk and I just go running that night. Also, we are those parents that have been doing the Joe Wicks 9am o'clock PE lesson every morning as well and I must admit joking apart that has been an amazing thing. I think for kids and parents because it does genuinely make you feel a little bit more lively afterwards and it does genuinely… it is quite a laugh to do with a small child. And you do genuinely feel that you're actually doing something and as Shavaun alluded to, it is a bit of routine, doing that sort of every morning and it absolutely does help. I think that guy basically needs a knighthood after this is over.

Darren:           If there’s one opportunity that you've spotted coming out of the crisis, what would you say? Is that one leaps out to you?

Shavaun:       I think I'm starting to see businesses giving some thought to how they plan their exit into normality. If there is any such thing as normality anymore, and I think communications professionals have a significant part to play in how they help their businesses prepare and their staff prepare going back into the workplace and thinking about this concertina effect of the virus as well, that it may get better and then worse, then better again. So, we've seen how productive and valuable communications has been in terms of explaining to staff, explaining to customers and shareholders and stakeholders about the rundown of the business. I think they need to think similarly about their planning back into normality and getting things back on an even keel. So, I'd like to see communications professionals playing a part in that and I see that as an opportunity.

Ben:                I mean there's loads and I have to give a bit of a plug to a blog post on Comms2Point0, which I helped to write alongside many of the UK sort of comms pros this week, talking about what people's hopes are after this is all over and there's about ten in there and there's loads more that I could've written about, but I think the main one is that just things can't go back to the way they were in terms of, you know, we are proving through this whole process that how valuable comms is. We're proving we can be trusted to get on with stuff. We're proving that we can make her own decisions. We’re proving that we have the best interests of our organisations at heart. We’re proving we can be creative. We’re proving we don't need long-winded sign-off processes. We're proving how important digital comms is. We just have to, I think, remind our leaders in our organisations of how valuable we were during this process. And I think we need to come out of the other side of it and say “remember that time when there was that global crisis, and we completely helped public perceptions of our organisation, and we saved people's lives by you letting us get on with it. That's how we need to work permanently.”

Adrian:           Obviously one of the guiding lights of this podcast is about learning. So what one thing have you learned about yourself in the last week? Shavaun first.

Shavaun:       That if I open myself up to opportunities and I leap at them, I get the most out of some really amazing people in my profession.

Ben:                I learned what furlough means!


Adrian:           That was Ben and Shavaun, coming to us live from their various living rooms and home offices. And as I said before we really want to make this as interactive as possible. So, we asked on Twitter what you want to hear. Conor said he wants to hear tips about keeping teams engaged. The guys at Orlo responded. They said that they're doing 5pm Friday pub quizzes. I know in my organisation, as we record this on Thursday evening, tomorrow at 4 o'clock I've got a very important virtual social thing going on. I've got some beers and not sure if it's too early to drink, four o'clock on a Friday, but you know, these are extraordinary times.

Darren:           It wouldn’t normally stop you.

Adrian:           That's a vicious rumour. What about you, have you heard about any other fun things which are going on to keep teams engaged at a distance?

Darren:           I think lots of creativity out there, isn't there, as you say, team meetings via video, Skype, Zoom, Houseparty, all the other video platforms that are out there. And music quizzes at lunch time for staff which things are really cool and one that I heard that's happening tomorrow is a staff team meeting but each team member is being asked to wear the most outrageous set of headgear or hat that they possibly can find. And I think there's a prize for the winner. So, I think that's the police comms team. So yeah lots of creativity out there.

Adrian:           So, as we record these podcasts we going to try and get as much audience interaction as possible so, tweet us at @TalkingCommsPod or email us. Darren, it's been a few months and I haven't tested you in quite some time, what is the Talking Comms Pod email address?

Darren:           Is it

Adrian:           Yay! Clap for Darren! So obviously we’ve talked about work and let's talk about something a bit more personal. So, what have you actually missed just in the last couple of weeks?

Darren:           The things I've missed doing… obviously the social stuff, that goes without saying doesn't it, although so much social stuff is now on Zoom, and Zoom is my life, everything seems to happen on Zoom now, doesn't it? So, I don't feel that I'm too isolated because I've been chatting to people every day, you know friends and work colleagues. I think for me mainly food and drink things. So, I'm missing my flat white from York's. I'm missing my breakfast from Leon, and I'm missing my smoked aubergine Curry from the Indian Streetery. So yeah, they did appear to be food and drink related. Yeah. How about you?

Adrian:           Well, it's strange. I've actually missed London being busy. So, I live on the outskirts of London and I travel through it to the other side of London every single day and I hadn't realised how much I missed actually being on a train with other people, you know, just watching the scenery as it goes by on the train, you know. And my train goes straight through the middle of London and there's always something to look at usually someone, you know, like getting an umbrella trapped in their coat or something like that and it's little things like that and those little reminders that actually well certainly in sort of the London area that we do live very close together with with other people and all of that stuff is just on hold. I've missed ‘busyness’, I suppose you'd call it.

Darren:           Do you think when we’re on the other side and you're on a busy, packed tube and everything's back to normal. You'll miss the quiet?

Adrian:           I will hate every single person on that tube, I can almost guarantee! I won't have learned a thing!

Darren:           Quite right too. So, before we end, have you got any top TV recommendations, things that you've watched?

Adrian:           If I was to give one recommendation as far as TV was concerned, I would talk about The Repair Shop on BBC One on Wednesdays, I think it is. It's like a beautiful bubble in time. It's a very simple set up: people bring their old stuff into a barn, the best craftspeople in the world fix the thing, the thing is revealed to them at the end and everybody cries. That's basically the format, and it is just so beautifully done, the care with which these craftspeople take to polish, fix, tweak all these different sorts of family heirloom items. It is so amazing, I cannot recommend it highly enough. I mean, they're good tears. They're not sad tears, they’re amazing, emotional release tears, which I think we all need at the moment. And what about you in terms of recommendations?

Darren:           Well you know I love a bit of TV and film, so two quickies. If you haven't seen it, Ozark on Netflix is brilliant so season 3 dropped, as the kids say, last Friday. I've already finished it. So, 12 episodes done. I'm really good at TV… if only I could get paid for it. Yeah, Jason Bateman and Laura Linney are absolutely outstanding. They're kind of like a rooked conniving husband-and-wife team and it’s money laundering and Mexican drug cartels and it's really good. Second one: I've only just started it which was a recommendation from Katrina Marshall and that’s Tiger King.

Adrian:           Everyone is talking about it.

Darren:           I've only watched two episodes. It's insane.

Adrian:           Is it?

Darren:           Absolutely insane and I'm told it just goes up a notch each time. So, I'll be checking in on an episode of that after this, I think.

Adrian:           Right, Darren, take care of yourself, won't you, and will be doing another podcast fairly soon, I think so, yes, get your headgear at the ready and we’ll speak on Zoom.

Darren:           Fantastic! You take care, Ade, and I will speak to you very soon.

Adrian:           Bye.

Darren:           Bye.