When I started blogging again the intention was to write a post a day. Especially now we’re in lockdown as the pandemic rages around us the idea was to give structure to the endless indoor days, to provide a record for myself and maybe others, to fall back on the comfortable stretching of well-worn technique. I’ve had this blog for 12 years now, I had been blogging anonymously before that. As a journalist, there’s an enjoyable discipline in writing seemingly unstructured musings to a pretty strict length. While I’m honest about what I say on the blog and would never lie, I don’t share every piece of myself. There is always a line. I’ve noticed that a lot of friends who’ve also earned their living from writing have also turned back to blogging or podcasting. Apart from the fact there is an undeniable urge to reach out for human contact right now, it is also intensely comforting to fall back into a familiar way of writing. It’s like flexing a muscle for familiar exercise, there’s even a similar endorphin rush when the words begin to flow. I’m not yet at that point with academic writing so the chapter I’m working on is going much slower these days.
So I blog partly to communicate, partly to keep in shape as I get stir crazy. As we move inexorably towards the peak of this virus communication is absolutely vital. Not just how we reach out to each other, but more official communication as well. Now is not a time for corporations or governments to be tone-deaf on anything. People are on edge, worried and scared. Anyone with pre-existing anxiety or depression have it particularly tough. We are living through a time that looks horribly like the end of world scenarios we catastrophise to. Now is a time for comfort, for the familiar, for reassurance. We know there’s a big bad world out there, there’s no escaping it at the moment. If ever there was a time to live by the mantra “don’t be a dick”, that time is now.
Which brings me to the reason why I haven’t been blogging for the last few days. Last Wednesday, an email was sent to budget holders at the University of Sussex advising a series of cost-cutting measures in the face of the financial uncertainty sparked by the current situation. So far, so pragmatic. Unfortunately, at least for management and the subsequently very overworked comms department, the document found it’s way out of its initial limited distribution and ended up being read by the people it was writing about. The problem was that, as well as calling for people to think before ordering expensive catering for meetings and to keep an eye on the stationery budget, the document also called for all casual, non-permanent and part-time staff roles to be evaluated and if possible, if they were not business-critical, to be terminated as soon as possible.
Even though the university issued a statement the following day, announcing to the world that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed because no-one was going to be sacked summarily, the rest of the week degenerated into a storm of stress and anxiety. This is my first example of poor communication. At no point did the statement say that casual staff, precarious staff, many of whom were working extremely hard delivering hastily prepared online teaching and supporting students, were valued members of the Sussex family. At no point did they offer reassurance or acknowledge that the past term had been difficult, not least because of four weeks of strike action partly about the working conditions of precarious and casual staff. At no point did they actually apologise for causing additional stress to vulnerable staff. This was a corporate statement from an institution whose most recent financial statement shows to be in the black and whose latest strategic policy framework puts kindness front and centre of the university’s corporate identity. I am doing this PhD without funding. I rely on teaching to support myself through this. Last week I was preparing for three days of teaching remotely as well as dealing with the emotional ups and downs of being in the middle of a lockdown caused by a global pandemic. The news about the financial planning document broke two days after the lockdown was announced. Nothing about this was good communication. But that’s the thing, surely right now, with everything that’s going on, it would be easy to be magnanimous? Surely there was some sweeping statement that wouldn’t actually cost anything but would win a lot of goodwill? Surely it’s not rocket science? I should add that the support from academic colleagues was the opposite, collegiate and supportive. That is what the university response should have been, but it wasn’t.
Which brings me neatly to the government response to the current pandemic. This is a government made up of people who were all over Facebook ads and punchy slogans when it came to Brexit. When it comes to saving peoples lives in the face of a predictable threat (this is not the first global pandemic humanity has faced after all) they all seem to be learning on the job. Once again it’s the communication that’s been off. I’m not even talking about the daily press conferences here, but the public messaging. This is the country, after all, that has produced such gems as “dig for victory“, “careless talk costs lives” and “make do and mend“. Even outside wartime, public information films like “Never talk to strangers” and “The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water” were the first introduction of horror for many of my generation. But now, when Britain is facing a genuine health crisis, the public information has been confusing and rather lacklustre. Maybe I’m just more used to the way the Irish government talks to the people. The corresponding government advice page in Ireland preempts questions and answers them. Reading both lots of information the British advice gives the rules but very little detail while the Irish advice gives much of the same advice but has considered what further questions people might have. There’s a curious gap between the two. This public messaging and the reaction of the University of Sussex to the fallout from the financial planning document speak to the same failure and I wonder is it a particularly British one. A fixed mindset, that does not see the value of addressing the audience as human beings in all their messy and vulnerable reality. It’s a failure to connect, a failure to understand. At the moment in particular, surely that failure is a critical one?