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What we need now is confidence

What we need now is confidence

First published on Business West’s website and shared here with their kind permission.

As a long-standing member of the Bristol Chamber of Commerce and West of England Initiative, I have to applaud the team for their tireless drive and determination to support our region and businesses through the pandemic.

The latest in the series of fortnightly Initiative meetings last week provided a clear demonstration of the role they have played in the region for so many years and at which, for the last ten weeks, they have thrown every ounce of energy they’ve got into #tradingthroughcoronavirus: bringing together business, community and political leaders to help shape and influence the future of Bristol, Bath and beyond and make it a better place for us all to live and work in.

Chief Executive of the Chambers of Commerce & Initiative at Business West, James Durie, and his team, gave a snapshot of this magnificent effort: helping businesses and employers to quickly access schemes such as the small business grant fund and loan schemes; working with public and private sector partners to lobby Government for the now-launched Bounce Back loan scheme to help the smallest businesses (something I’ve taken advantage of myself); conducting one of the biggest business surveys in the UK to ascertain the true impact of coronavirus in order to help inform national policy; whilst at a local level, they’ve dealt with hundreds of individual business queries, and seen well over 150,000 website views on their Trading Through Coronavirus web platform, which aims to provide daily updates and advice.

The momentum and appetite for their fortnightly meetings has continued to build, and this one – their fifth – saw more than 150 business and community leaders in attendance spanning a diverse range of sectors, private, public and third – and not just from Bristol and the West of England, but across the whole of the South West; with Chamber of Commerce members from Gloucestershire down to Cornwall and across to Dorset and Wiltshire.

Reflecting the value of these discussions, the meeting was also supported by an impressive turnout of the region’s political leaders, including Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees, West of England Mayor Tim Bowles along with senior representatives from local LEPs, the CBI, IoD, colleges and universities, Bristol Airport and Port, SWTUC, media and local councillors.

The underlying theme of this session was undoubtedly about the need for confidence. We have all been shaken by COVID-19, with our lives impacted in ways we never imagined and the future is still shrouded in uncertainty. Richard Bonner, President of Bristol Chamber & Initiative, set out this need at the start of the meeting, rightly stating that as we now begin to think about recovery, we have to look at helping create an environment for citizens to feel confident that they can get out, use public transport, come into our towns and cities again.

Katherine Bennett CBE, Senior Vice President for Airbus UK, a guest speaker for the meeting, gave a clear illustration of this need. She presented a detailed update on the grave situation faced by Airbus: operating in an industry that has witnessed a 90-95% drop in flights, domestic flights down by 70%, 25 million jobs at stake. Airbus itself has a UK workforce of 13,500 across more than 25 sites, bringing £25 billion in revenue. Like so many others, they have quickly and impressively pivoted their operations during lockdown, joining the national Ventilator Challenge UK project to deliver 15,000 ventilators from their factory in North Wales, and providing over 1 million facemasks and other PPE to national authorities.

Looking ahead, their three main priorities will be:

1. Encouraging return to flight – working with the industry to ensure a safe return, positive passenger experience and international trade

2. Sustainable aviation – they remain committed to the decarbonisation of aviation and are working towards COP 2026 in Glasgow

3. Brexit challenges – working hard with the Government to mitigate the impact

What many of the attendees were also eager to learn about, was Katherine’s second presentation, which created a positive buzz in both the discussion and chat box.

Aside from the day job, she is also Chair of the Western Gateway. Officially launched on November 1st last year by the Secretary of State for Wales, the Western Gateway covers a cross-border region encompassing the West of England and South Wales and includes eight cities (including Bristol, Bath, Newport and Cardiff), three city regions, 4.4 million residents, 11 universities and 160,000 businesses.

Touted as an idea for many years, it is an opportunity for our part of the country to become a serious contender alongside the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine. Promoted by then Bristol Mayor George Ferguson as the ‘Severn Region’ back in 2014, it has never quite got out of the starting blocks, but there now appears to be a new mood and collective feeling that COVID-19 might just be the catalyst it needed.

Katherine was pleased to say that the region’s leaders have continued to keep the agenda going in spite of having to deal with the pandemic. The overarching aim of the Western Gateway is to add £56 billion to the UK economy by 2030, with a greener, fairer and stronger economy, and three key emerging ambitions: to develop world class physical and digital connectivity; to become the UK’s global gateway for export and investment; and to be a driver of innovation, particularly in digital and high-tech.

“The only way we can do this is by having a leadership group with business alongside us, to show how this western part of the UK…can contribute to the nation’s wealth.”

The next step, Katherine explained, is to work together to create a full vision document and pull together a strong economic case, with detailed business case propositions for the major investments we want to see from the Government. Katherine said that the Government places great importance on these sub regional partnerships, which include the Midlands Engine and Northern Powerhouse so we quite clearly need to demonstrate collaboration, commitment and confidence in the Western Gateway.

James Durie endorsed this: “We know business wants to do this and is so ambitious for this region…We need this part of the country heard in Whitehall and its role properly recognised and understood as part of the national conversation and we look forward to working with Katherine, our chamber colleagues in South Wales and the wider partnership to enable our businesses to make this happen.”

The meeting continued its positive trajectory with a speech from Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith CBE, the newly elected President of British Chambers of Commerce, who brought further endorsement to the value of these meetings by choosing this as her first visit to one of the 53 regional chambers, supported by Director General Adam Marshall.

The South West is a familiar part of the country for her, having worked successfully here for many years as chief executive of Mitie. She talked about her optimism that we will, on the whole, recover from COVID-19 and set out what she sees as the three phases on the journey to recovery: restart, rebuilt and renew.

“I’m excited by growth and where it will come from. I would urge everyone to spend a few minutes every day thinking about where that growth will come from.”

Dr Adam Marshall meanwhile praised the work of the 53 Chambers of Commerce during the past three months to ensure the policy response from the Government has been stronger and better informed. He rightly suggested that, as we come out of hibernation, many companies could still be facing waves of cash crises and we need that support to be flexible and sensitive. “Guidance on reopening needs to be clear, actionable and proportionate, and must work for the small firms as well as the big ones.” He also concurred with the need to give consumers confidence – and said that this means testing, both in the workplace and the community.

During the series of questions that followed, with candid thoughts provided by Mayors Marvin Rees and Tim Bowles, the other key areas that were raised as needing to collectively be factored into our recovery strategies are sustainable development, tacking inequalities, diversity and deprivation. As Marvin said, “It’s important we don’t see this as a nice outcome tacked onto the back end of economic development.”

The final point of the meeting raised in terms of its importance in building confidence was around the role of regulators.

Dr Adam Marshall summed it up: “Both for local authorities and for the Health and Safety Executive, we in business need you to do everything in your power to help us get things right. If this turns into a box ticking exercise where someone comes in with a clipboard and a copy of the guidance…I think we will take a step backwards in terms of that confidence. If, on the other hand, regulators are helping particularly small and medium sized businesses to check what they have done in order to bring people back safely and to make any adjustments that might be required, I think we can build more strongly on the foundation that we’ve laid already.”

Marvin Rees tackles economic recovery in Zoom address to Chamber & Initiative members

Marvin Rees tackles economic recovery in Zoom address to Chamber & Initiative members

First published on Business West’s website and shared here with their kind permission.

On the day that was dubbed ‘Back to Work Day’ in the media, the Business West Initiative meeting, attended by over 120 of the region’s business leaders, clearly reflected the national shift in tone and focus.

It opened with two snippets of positive news from Bristol Chamber and Initiative at Business West Chief Executive, James Durie, which served to set the tone for the meeting: firstly, that Bristol North West MP Darren Jones has been voted in as chair of the BEIS Select Committee – meaning we have key influence at a central level in Westminster and Whitehall; and secondly, that Destination Bristol’s virtual destination campaign has just been named the 3rd best in the world by Rough Guide. Both of these facts were a reminder that, whilst lockdown may be physically isolating, it is more important than ever to be outward-looking as we navigate our way into the recovery phase of COVID-19.

Recovery was very much the theme of the fast-moving meeting. Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees stated that “We need to be talking about recovery and not just waiting to see what comes along”. Whilst proudly highlighting that Bristol City Council was one of the top authorities in the country for the speed in which they’d released small business grants, he quickly moved on to explain some of the big picture work now proactively being done to take Bristol forwards to a better future. This includes seeking major infrastructure funding for Temple Quarter including the ambitious and long overdue multi-million pound plans to transform Temple Meads Station, and the development of Bristol University’s new university campus next to the station across on the Temple Island site. Due to its scale this is the major regeneration project for the SW region.

It was also the day that he had sensibly elected to make an announcement on changes to more than 20 roads around the city, to ensure that social distancing can still be adhered to and go further to make it easier for walking and cycling as we start to head back to work. However, Mayor Rees reminded us that sustainability “isn’t a single-issue topic”. With a growing population the council has a complex puzzle to solve, balancing environmental measures alongside business employment space needs and significant numbers of new homes needing to be built. The virus and the measures to control it have compounded the inequalities in the city, so particular consideration must be given to those worst impacted.

Transport has a big part to play in our ability to start to move out of lockdown. How do we drive sustainable behaviour change and get people using public transport whilst socially distancing – especially with Boris’ advice to avoid public transport if not essential still ringing in our ears? James Freeman, MD of First Bus, spoke and admitted that usage on today’s ‘Back to Work Day’ appeared to be a little lower than previous days (already down to 9% of pre-COVID usage). He then went on, however, to set out an impressive plan to have Bristol’s buses almost back to the normal Monday to Friday frequency within a fortnight and arrangements to make sure they can offer both capacity and social distancing.

Matt Griffith, Business West Director of Policy, talked about the work they are doing to understand what the recovery strategy might require in the West of England and wider area, as it copes with things like a sharp rise in unemployment, the challenges of transport behaviour, and the impact on retail, the visitor economy and culture. Business West is already engaged in conversations with the Government, particularly to help them understand what the national exit strategy and phasing out of furloughing means for those sectors still in lockdown towards the end of the summer.

Whilst still a daunting task ahead, there was perhaps the first tiny glimmer of hope for the region’s 700 or so charities, who have admitted they have no reserves to fall back on. Sue Turner, CEO of Quartet Community Foundation and a longstanding Initiative member, announced that they have already successfully raised £1m from local philanthropists. The recovery plan will be firstly, stabilisation – getting them core support to keep operating; and then looking at how to raise the estimated £30 million to get the sector back on its feet. Sue posed an interesting question to the meeting: “Could Bristol’s better future include a new relationship between business and the third sector?”

Finally, there was recovery advice even for those businesses such as Hargreaves Lansdown, who have fared pretty well through this crisis. Karen Cooke, Senior HR Business Partner and Acting Head of Recruitment at Hargreaves Lansdown, advised on the need to look at and update policies, such as absence, holiday and bereavement. And staff wellbeing must be high up the agenda post-lockdown too; Hargreaves Lansdown are following and supporting partners of the Thrive Bristol model, looking at the 3 key areas of Leadership, Policy and Culture & Training. This is likely to be a subject that we are going to be talking a lot more about in the coming weeks and months, understanding how we can boost wellbeing amidst a national emphasis on ‘super-charging our economy’ and ‘making up for lost time’.

It was given to James Durie to end the meeting and he summed it up perfectly with a line that I hope Bristol officially adopts as its new recovery motto: “Recovery doesn’t mean going back to the past – it means going back to better.”

Strike launches COVID-19 comms recovery package for businesses

Strike launches COVID-19 comms recovery package for businesses

Strike has launched a new communications package to help businesses and organisations ensure they are in the best position to recover when the UK begins to start easing out of lockdown.

The ‘Review and Reset’  package has been developed as part of a new partnership with another Bristol PR consultancy, Karen White Communications. We have joined forces together to offer this special service, and are donating 15% of our fees to the charity Fare Share, whose aim is to reduce food poverty in the UK.

Catherine Frankpitt, Director of Strike Communications, says: “COVID-19 has changed the way everyone is living and working and that is going to continue for a significant length of time. Organisations will need to look closely at their communications strategy and activities for the next year – it is very likely that they will need to be refocused. What we are communicating and the way we are doing it has changed with our customers, partners and employees.”

Karen White adds: “We know that most businesses’ number one concern and priority right now will be financial, which is absolutely right at this point. But in order to stand the best chance of surviving and thriving, they will need to ensure they have the right communications plan to support them. We’ve created this package as we think it offers a cost-effective solution that will help with their recovery.”

The three-step package will look at the business or organisation’s existing strategy and collateral, a review of how the landscape in which they are operating may have changed and recommendations as to how to move forward.

To find out more please click here.

Just be yourself and they’ll love you

Just be yourself and they’ll love you

My Mum has given me an eclectic bag of advice over the years, ranging from the somewhat dubious ‘Never trust a man who wears polo necks’ and ‘Eating stale bread is good for you because mould is just penicillin’ to the more sensible ‘Don’t go out with wet hair unless you want to catch a cold.’

One thing she often said to me, whether I was starting a new school, going for a job interview or even a first date, was ‘Just be yourself and they’ll love you’.

There has been endless advice over the last few weeks on how to do good communications during this pandemic (including a previous blog from me!) Lots of analysis too on businesses that are doing it well and those that aren’t. If you don’t feel that communications is your forte, it could be quite overwhelming. Which is why I think my Mum’s advice is spot on for people who are anxious about what to say or not to say. We all need to just be ourselves right now.

So, what does this mean in terms of the way you communicate?

  1. Be authentic

Literally no-one wants a hard sell or a lecture at the moment, we don’t have the mental bandwidth for it. Whoever you are – our bosses, politicians, supermarket chiefs – you need to be genuine and real.

  1. Be truthful

We also don’t want spin or bull. So, don’t promise something unless you know you can deliver on it and don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have all the answers. People will respect you for your honesty and you are more likely to gain their trust and loyalty.

  1. Show emotion

I’ve heard several accounts of people saying they’ve seen their usually professional work colleague get tearful on a Zoom call. It feels as though the stigma around mental health issues has been somewhat cast aside as people are more readily admitting that this is causing anxiety, panic and depression.

Showing emotion at this extraordinary time actually makes us more relatable to others. That doesn’t mean you have to cry on every conference call, but now is the time to relax that corporate tone of voice on your customer newsletter and sound genuinely human.

  1. Be kind

Hearing about acts of kindness give us a lift right now, so do share these stories if you have them. But also, be kind in your communicating, especially on things like your social media accounts. Remember that even the biggest corporates’ Twitter accounts will have a real person with feelings responding to your snarky tweet. And I’m led to believe that even Piers Morgan has feelings – so if you can’t bring yourself to be nice, then consider keeping quiet.

  1. Don’t worry about the competition

Never has competition seemed so unimportant. Supermarkets are working together. Pharmaceutical companies are working together. Our political leaders should be working together. So just focus on what it is that you have to offer.

These are tough times, but they do give us an opportunity to strip away the façade and just be ourselves. Good luck and stay safe everyone.