Throughout the coronavirus pandemic internal communicators have been adding our experiences of what it is like to practice during a significant historical event to the vast digital record of our times on social media and the internet. What will this historical archive we are creating say about what we did and what our purpose was during these difficult days, who will feature in it, and will it be a past imperfect?
The reality of the moment
Have you been having those sudden ‘reality check’ moments during the current coronavirus pandemic? Those moments where you are suddenly shocked or surprised by ordinary scenes you’re witnessing in the mundane routine of your daily life. The things we have all become reluctantly and strangely familiar with over the last few weeks.
I had one in the supermarket queue recently as I waited patiently spaced 2 metres from the person in front and behind me. The long queue snaking around the car park, people wearing face masks loading their cars with the weekly shop, the staff disinfecting the trolleys and the alcoholic stench of hand sanitiser. Then when finally inside, the strange social distancing dance we’ve all suddenly learned to perform with complete strangers, the apologetic and worried glances and glares exchanged between people who get too close to each other, some of the shelves and freezers still somewhat bare after the early panic buying of our two months in lockdown.
It’s surreal, scenes from some kind of dystopian fictional future suddenly and abruptly now part of our daily normality in the UK and globally. A few short months ago, these scenes would have been unthinkable.
How will the history of these strange times, ‘The Great Pandemic of 2020’, be presented? Who will feature most prominently in it and will any of them be internal communicators?
A past imperfect
When I was nine years old my parents bought me a World of Wonder annual for Christmas and my lifelong passion for ancient history began, particularly that of Ancient Egypt. I’ve since read countless books and articles on the subject but these historical accounts rarely include the ‘voices’ of ordinary people like you and me, although evidence of them does exist if you hunt it down.
Our written world history is often presented from the perspectives of politicians, reformers, warlords, dictators, emperors, scientists, inventors, kings, queens and pharaohs. This usually happens because there is a good record of their deeds and words, with the voices of the ‘ordinary people’ taken to their graves and lost forever.
Our history is a skewed record, which at best is a snapshot interpretation of the deeds of the few, and at its worst a work of near fiction or propaganda. No one alive today knows what it was really like to live as an ordinary person during the 19th Dynasty of the Egyptian New Kingdom, or any other period in history before the beginning of the 20th Century. Our history books are a past imperfect.
This time, however, maybe the voices of ordinary people and their experience during this pandemic won’t be lost forever.
As I stood in the supermarket queue the woman in front of me lifted her phone, took a picture and proceeded to post it on social media, no doubt with some shared comments about her own surreal reality check moment that morning. Another mundane moment added to the vast digital record of day to day human experience which has been created during this pandemic. An artefact to be discovered and interpreted by some future historian or digital archaeologist.
In my 20s and 30s I travelled across Egypt visiting the remains of vast monuments, statues and temples, the canvases on which the propaganda of the significant few was proliferated. People who were not like you and me. Later in life I’ve become more interested in what is left of the voices and deeds of the ordinary people. There is something quite poignant and touching seeing what is left of the ephemera of ordinary people’s daily lives. Jewellery, writing equipment, children’s toys, a lady’s make-up kit, scraps of clothing, bills, invoices, love letters and insults scratched onto broken bits of pottery. These things tell a story of what daily life was really like for them, in some ways an experience which is not much different to our own modern-day experience.
This year I am Vice-Chair of CIPR Inside, a professional body for internal communicators in the UK. Our activities include research into internal communications practice and professionalism and we recently signed up to help an independent academic researcher to piece together the historical development of internal communications and present practice. I’m looking forward to seeing what the research turns up, but also how this is interpreted and who features in it. I guess it will be down to the availability of records and unearthing what remains of the artefacts of ancient IC! For sure, a researcher doing similar research in a hundred years’ time might have a bit more to go on.
Our history is what we share now
Over the last few weeks, I and many other internal communicators have been adding our own experiences, advice, heroics, frustrations, victories and commentary to the digital record on websites across the internet and social media about what it is like to be an internal communicator during these extraordinary times.
When this chapter of the history of our profession and community is written what will it say about us? Who will be the significant figures and personalities who will feature in the narrative, and what will it say about what we did and what our purpose was during these difficult days? Something for us all to think about when we next post or share something! Our history is what we share now.
However history portrays internal communicators and what we did, hopefully the account will not be a past imperfect and be a reflection of the voices of the many, rather than the few.