It forced me to cancel my wedding, but COVID-19 has proved the resilience of all police communicators

Everyone has their own story to tell about this exceptional time in our living history, sometimes desperately sad, sometimes just frustrating, but we are lucky – or unlucky, depending on how frazzled you are feeling – in policing communications to have a had a unique insight into the pandemic as it unfolded.

The pandemic has been a major incident like no other, and truly taught us how vital our comms roles are, says Nicola Atter
The pandemic has been a major incident like no other, and truly taught us how vital our comms roles are, says Nicola Atter

Having worked in policing communications for nearly 20 years, in Norfolk, I thought I had dealt with nearly every type of incident there was.

I have become used to dealing with things so bizarre you couldn’t believe they weren't in a movie or a book.

Outside work, I was also in the process of planning my wedding, all set for a weekend of partying in a field – there was a festival theme – in the middle of June.

It began with a few murmurings toward the end of February.

I had a couple of ad hoc meetings where we started to discuss what a response would look like if the virus causing significant issues in China at the time reached our shores.

But it wasn’t until my chief constable popped into our office one day saying things looked really worrying that I began to take it extremely seriously.

With the sad number of terrorist strikes the country has endured over the past couple of years, Norfolk and Suffolk had its own plans for dealing with such events and, once the country was looking like it was going to go into full lockdown, we dusted off our communications plans and started looking at what the impact of that would mean for our teams.

With Norfolk and Suffolk working slightly differently – Norfolk picking up the day-to-day COVID-19 communications internally and both forces sharing their external messaging, ensuring localised differences – there was a multitude of meetings to attend remotely and messages, campaigns and updates that needed to be given both to officers and staff and to our residents in both counties.

Both forces were also heavily involved in supporting their local resilience forums with officer representation and communications.

This meant that, while my team were not only grappling with a new way of working and trying to keep on top of an ever-changing picture, they were also having to work harder than they have ever had to in their police communications lives.

I had said to several of the new members of my team that a major incident would help them really learn more about how vital our roles in policing are, but I hadn’t meant this!

In our daily Zoom and Skype meetings, we often agonised about how to get the messaging out in a way that positively influenced behaviour, in terms of words and images both to our communities and to our colleagues internally.

When we conducted a poll of those communications, 88 per cent of our responders externally said they felt the forces’ communications around COVID-19 were informative. In an internal survey, meanwhile, officers and staff were, in the main, very happy with how we had given them information.

We also had a little fun.

Our meetings on Fridays had a dress-up theme, which some team members found more challenging than others.

One memorable week found me dialling in to a whole host of images of… me (see below). Very, very surreal!

With things getting slowly back to a new normal, given the threat of the virus is still with us, the team is taking a collective breath.

Although our communities will still be looking to us for policing updates, I am now trying to persuade people that time off will do them some good from a welfare perspective.

I cannot say enough how proud I am of how my team met and overcame the challenges, and I have not stopped telling people this.

The pandemic has highlighted to me how important caring about each other is.

Oh, and I had to postpone my wedding until next year, sadly – but I am determined that we will then party like it is 2020.

Nicola Atter is vice-chair of the Association of Police Communicators and corporate comms manager at Norfolk Police

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