Renfrewshire Council

Louisa Mahon

Our Head of Marketing and Communications, Louisa Mahon, shares her thoughts on our response to Coronavirus and the importance of Our Values during these challenging times. #WorldValuesDay 2020

Louisa's blog


Having worked in PR for almost 25 years, managing crisis is second nature. The job requires resilience in the face of emergency situations - often upsetting, and over the years the events that cause me to lose sleep have lessened.

But the arrival of Coronavirus as an international news headline did make me take notice. I did worry about it off and on. And in February as COVID-19 began to grip Italy and I phoned my mum to ask her to come home (she lives in Italy and decided to remain throughout), I realised the wider implications for our own communities and life here in the UK.

As the Corporate Management Team (CMT) began planning in earnest for a potential national lockdown with colleagues across the council, every service was examined, and we worked together to find solutions every day, sharing our expertise.

I was clear on our communication objectives and knew the service could run no matter where we were based. I had great teams around me and felt certain we could get information out to people quickly. Colleagues began to work from home, taking kit with them. Leisure facilities closed. Schools closed. Care services were given priority. And on Monday 23 March, lockdown began.

Nothing really prepares you for an emergency like this until it hits. The first 14-days were the most intense of my career. Each day brought a new challenge, the pace was furious, I spoke with Sandra and the CMT every day, sometimes 3 or 4 times a day. My aim was to keep a clear head, keep connected to the team, and do everything possible to get the latest information to colleagues and local people so they could trust in the council to manage the crisis. I think we did quite well when all is said and done. Managing distressing information daily can be difficult. In a regular crisis this tends to happen in an intense but relatively short burst, but this was very different - it was relentless.

I failed spectacularly at home schooling. I gave my children Jammie Dodgers for dinner. In week two my brother in law passed away after contracting COVID and not being able to see my own family was beyond dreadful.

Around this time, we launched Our Values which might not seem a priority during a pandemic, but it was absolutely the right decision. Colleagues and local people had already told us that being fair and helpful, always learning and being great collaborators were important to them and amid the biggest crisis of our time, these values were evident everywhere, every day.

Even on the days that were difficult, the remarkable stories of what colleagues were achieving and doing for others gave me faith and immense pride in Renfrewshire Council.

There were remarkable examples of our values at work, of people helping others, volunteering, innovating, delivering new services, collaborating to support people who needed us most. Providing a lifeline, never judging and going the extra mile.

The compliments and thank you messages that poured in for frontline colleagues across services, were rightly deserved. I hope we never stop celebrating those who went out to work at the height of the crisis - when I clapped on a Thursday it was for you. And I loved seeing the pictures coming in from those working at home and keeping the council operating while balancing technology, children and pets. I think a lot of people felt able to share more of themselves and that is a positive thing to come from this.

What surprised me most, and still does, is not just the force at which the crisis hit, but the speed at which we responded almost overnight; adjusting to working from home; coming to work under very different conditions; taking on new roles; designing and delivering new services; abandoning life as we knew it but at every turn getting the job done. We showed public service at its very best.

And what would I say to anyone else who might walk in my shoes one day?

Look ahead, plan for every eventuality and learn from others. Coronavirus was making its way towards us for months.

Don't get distracted and stick to the comms plan. You can't communicate too often in the early days.

Often the information is not easy to understand. Be kind and careful when you explain it.

Accept you are in it for the long-haul. Sleep and eat well and step outside at look at the sky even if it's at midnight.

You will make mistakes and that is ok. You won't have all the answers on your own and that is ok. That's why we are a team.

Remember to smile at people - even if its from behind a mask or a computer screen. And tell people how much you appreciate them.

Have everyone's number in your phone.