Does anyone care about my new job – as a carer?
Robert (front) and Steve before chronic fatigue syndrome struck.
What do you think when someone tells you they’re a ‘carer’?
Do you think ‘well you’re retired, you’ve got grey hair, and such a thing often happens at that time of life” (in other words ‘what do you expect?’) or ‘oh no, now I’m going to have to listen with sympathy to someone with a sob story and I haven’t got the time or the interest.’?
Then, when someone who is a carer actually starts talking about the reality of their daily life, do your eyes glaze over and you drift away, immediately giving out the message that it’s just too much information? You didn’t really want to hear all of that stuff?
That’s what happened recently to renowned television director Steve Smith, who lives near Marlborough, Wiltshire. He was attending a big social red carpet event in London recently when someone he’d not seen for years asked him about his life.
“Many people know that Robert and I have been together for a long time and they asked after us. They didn’t know that Robert has an illness and that our lives had changed beyond recognition.
“Very quickly I realized they didn’t actually want to know. As I talked, their eyes glazed over and suddenly you can feel very alone in a crowded room. Your story just doesn’t fit anymore.”
Steve and Robert have made the decision to speak out about their situation to raise awareness around the impact of being a carer for national Carers Week this week.
“We don’t fit any mould or stereotype around caring. We’re a couple who are trying to care for and support each other through an ongoing situation which has changed our lives.
“We are from a higher income background where we used to a modestly privileged lifestyle (we have never wasted money). Now we’ve learned some hard life lessons. We do live in a beautiful village in a beautiful home but we still struggle to cope week on week. Our home is under threat – while we’ve been fortunate to have a buffer against the unexpected, which most people do not, now that buffer is very thin and we are having to carefully consider major changes.
“The lesson learned is that fortune can change on the spin of a coin and social position is often of little protection. When you are brought low, there’s very little real compassion out there.”
Many of us will have seen Steve’s work without even realising it – he’s the director of the Graham Norton Show aired on Friday nights on BBC1.
In his professional life, Steve works with people who are celebrities and it’s his job and make sure what we see on our screens is the best possible, and most interesting view from all angles.
But does anyone really want to see Steve in the same way? Steve does a job he loves and one he’s passionate about. Yet what aspect of his life interests you the most? Is it his professional role on a national television programme or his personal role at home – as a carer?
The role that consumes most of Steve’s life isn’t one he has chosen. He didn’t apply for the job and get it based upon his skills and life experience. It’s not one he planned for or had a forward-thinking strategy to deal with.
However, it’s the role he’s had to immerse himself in for the last seven years – and there’s no end in sight.
“When I first met Robert he was like Peter Pan. He was an outgoing, good looking, a physically active man and now he’s often unable to get out of bed, has very little energy, and is often too ill to engage with anyone.”
Steve cares on a daily basis for Robert, who faces a struggle with Chronic Fatique Syndrome . Some days, sometimes for weeks, Robert is bed-ridden. On other days he is able to get out, possibly for a few hours but his stamina is poor. Robert is terribly isolated by his condition – and so is Steve.
Steve said: “We had such an active life before this situation took hold. We embraced life to the full. Now we don’t accept invitations anywhere to anything – because we can never be sure that Robert will be well enough. We don’t want to let people down at the last minute. So eventually those invitations stop coming and our world has just got smaller and smaller.
“For his (Robert’s) mother’s 60th birthday, we went back to his family’s home in Yorkshire and he spent the whole weekend in bed. We did try to go out for a little walk, but Robert managed about 100 yards and that was it, he just had to stop. He just couldn’t walk any more.”
(this is part one of Steve and Robert’s story, the second part will be published on Sunday).
At the weekend, my 12 year old daughter Georgia took part in her first ever fundraising event – the Swindon Race for Life to raise money for cancer research.
She’d decided to do this only a short time ago after being inspired by a friend at school who had her hair shaved off to raise awareness when her mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was puzzled by how this one event had affected my daughter so much. After all, cancer is a disease we’ve had knowledge of. We have two close friends who are facing it as we speak, three other friends who have had it and are in recovery. We’ve also lost family members to it. However it was this one particular case which caught her imagination.
Very quickly, with the help of lovely Linda, our childminder and a regular Race for Life participant, Georgia planned her strategy and set a target of raising £50. She took it upon herself to gently tell neighbours she was doing the event, telephoning family members to let them know and mentioned it to all of her friends at school. Very quickly she’d raised £45. I mentioned it on social media, not an appeal for money, merely a mention.
It was this which showed me just how deeply as a society we are affected by cancer. The following day, another neighbour who’d seen my social media post, put a donation through the door of £40. The same day, another friend who doesn’t live locally, called and pledged another £25. Very quickly she’d raised well over £100.
On the day of the race, Georgia left early to warm up and prepare. As we arrived to support her, we walked across Lydiard Park and I wondered how many people would be there. After all, the event has been running in the town for several years. I could not believe my eyes when there was a sea of pink before me – and that didn’t include supporters. Thousands of women, of all shapes, sizes and abilities were gathered to do their bit.
Waving everyone off on the 5km course, wave after wave of women walked, ran or jogged past and it showed how many lives are touched by this disease and the human price of it began to hit you. The emotion was so unexpected. Apart from seeing my own child go off to do this event – I marvelled at the older lady in her mobility scooter, the girls with their hula hoops and the mums with pushchairs on their way.
You’re never too old to fight cancer
It was a day when I was proud of my own child, but also proud of Swindon and of all of those women who had gone out of their way to raise thousands and thousands to help beat this awful disease. We’ve pledged to do the event next year – and this time, I’ll be joining in with my other daughter as we both felt our little effort, matched with the little efforts of thousands of others, all turn into one big effort to defeat this dreadful disease in all its forms.
We Did It!
Today I want to talk about some of the things journalists are asked to when they approach organisations for an interview – particularly when that interview might be difficult.
This might be a business which is facing some kind of legal action, industrial tribunal or a local authority involved in an investigation, a school involved in a court case. It could involve a news interview, a sit-down interview for a longer programme or a fly-on-the-wall or ‘reality’ type programme.
Most businesses will feel uplifted by such a request and would tend to look at reasons ‘to do’ it, sometimes without asking the correct questions about the project.
Many organisations, or public service bodies, would often look for the reasons ‘not to do’ something, considering in much detail the possible risks or pitfalls.
Excuses to avoid being interviewed are often not pretty
Both approaches need modifying – a business could do damage to itself by not considering the messaging, however a public body could miss out on a valuable opportunity by not engaging.
So what are the top three excuses might a journalist be given for not giving an interview?
The first and most common when there is some kind of legal action is ‘it’s subjudice’ ie. it could prejudice a court case to do it. This can be a very good reason but journalists are also subject to the same laws around contempt of court so they do know what this means. Don’t use this as an excuse – journalists see through it. Be clear about the law for a journalist – subjudice in a criminal case starts technically when a person is arrested though in practice it’s when a person is charged. When that point is reached, the Magistrates Courts Act comes into effect to which all are subject. In a civil case, however, proceedings are active (subjudice comes into play) when a date for a hearing is set. This might be very late in the day, many months after the issue has arisen. Don’t try to baffle a journalist using this excuse.
The second request is ‘we’re interested but we want editorial control’. I’ve heard that many, many times. Understand this – YOU WILL NEVER GET IT. We have a free press in this country, that’s what makes PR so powerful. You cannot have editorial control over what a journalist does when they are writing for a third party publication as a contributor. Editorial control means I write, record or film an interview, let you see it, allow you to change anything you don’t like, and then it goes out. Not only is that time consuming – is that really what you want? Do you want to see a programme about, for example, MPs expenses where the MPs have ‘editorial control’?
If you’ve ever employed a PR consultant or company – they should clearly state that coverage isn’t guaranteed – and that’s because it is independent and therefore more credible.
A third and final one is – ‘it isn’t our fault, it’s their’s’ – this is often used when partnerships between organisations falls down. For example, a local authority and a building company hoping to build homes on a new site, it fails and the work is not done as originally intended. The local authority blames the housebuilder. The housebuilder blames the recession. Remember this, if your organisation is associated with a project – even if it’s not your fault that it failed – the perception will be that you are involved. Blaming another organisation won’t work. You will have to contribute to demonstrate what’s gone wrong – or people will assume you’ve done something wrong/don’t care/have something to hide.
When you have done something wrong – admit it, say sorry and outline what you’ve done to sort it out.
I always find this time of year frustrating when exam results come out for young people – results on which the future depends – or so it seems for those affected. For young people of 16 or 18, getting the ‘right’ results can feel like it’s the only important thing in the world.
And that makes me so angry. It’s also all the media coverage of journalists in schools and colleges with students poised to open their results envelopes. And oh surprise! It’s all As and A*s and Bs, no failures, no really low marks…..
Do I blame the media for this? Not entirely.
Everyone should have the opportunity to shine.....
I do blame the industry for continually telling the same story in the same way. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to follow a young person who didn’t do so well and help them find a new way forward? How useful would that be?
But, of course, any journalist knows that it’s not that easy. What school or college wants to put forward a student who is not at the top of the class? Who wants to line up potential failures for exposure? And which young person is willing to be publicly shown as not having done very well?
The truth is that many, many young people don’t get As and A*s or even Bs or Cs. Yet the overriding impression is that more people are getting these grades so the examinations must be getting easier.
Examinations are now very different to the outdated O level and CSE system. In those days, you had one opportunity to shine and it occurred during a two or three hour window in a high pressure examination, based on what you could remember.
If, like me, you didn’t function well under that kind of pressure as a teenager – the thought that now my own children can gain marks for the long piece of coursework they’ve slaved over and lavished passion upon is uplifting. To me, it’s a much fairer system allowing youngsters who don’t thrive under examination pressure to have their chance to shine. And that’s generally how degrees and higher education and vocational qualifications work.
I do agree with high pressure examinations being part of a marking system – as life is full of high pressure situations, including a professional life. But that’s not all that is important. Coursework has its place and should be considered, especially in very vocational courses.
Also I think we should hear far more about what to do if you don’t do as well as you hoped. I worked very hard for my O levels and did reasonably well – but now when I go for a job no one cares if I’ve got O levels let alone what the grades were….but then I’m old….
As for A levels, I did pass but that was about all. And that was hugely disappointing – I was expected to be an A/B grade student. I turned out not to be. I would have been the student who, being filmed, was beaming as they opened that envelope and then in floods of tears for not having achieved what was expected.
So what did I do while clasping my C,D,E grades in my hands – knowing I’d failed to gain a place at university studying Medieval English, which was my passion at the time. Did I re-take my examinations to get better grades? Did I give up on higher education and try to find a job?
In my case, I took advice from the school and applied at ‘lower’ level establishments, went through a secondary interview process for courses which were not full. I went to Bath College of Higher Education (now Bath Spa University) to study on a new BA Hons course in Combined Studies of English Literature & History. And I had a brilliant time there, met some great friends and worked alongside some wonderful lecturers. I must name check here Dr Mara Kalnins – who was very special to me as we shared a love for the work of author D H Lawrence.
While waiting to start my course, an article came out in the local paper listing the achievements of the students who’d done well and where they would be going to study. My name was last and it simply said ‘Fiona Bune is going to Bath’. The suggestion, to me, was that readers would assume I was going to the University of Bath. I’d rather they’d put nothing because it made me feel like an also-ran, an after thought. Years later, I became the reporter on that weekly newspaper managing and writing such stories – what an irony.
So this blog is a message to all of those young people who didn’t get the As and A*s and who are feeling that somehow they’ve failed. You have not failed. You simply are now required to re-assess and think about what you want to do next – then ask for help to get there. How you handle this situation will say far more about who you are – than any amount of A grades. And that’s what a future employer will remember…..
Today I feel hugely proud of our company, Mellow Media Ltd, as I have just attended a meeting which brought to a close three months’ work on an amazing project.
We have played an important part in running, developing and implementing a marketing strategy to raise well over £4m in just six weeks.
Let’s just think about that for a moment – that’s £666,667 a week or £95,238 every day.
Anyone connected with me on my social media network could have picked up my messages and tweets about Westmill Solar Cooperative or @westmillsolar.
It was the brainchild of Wiltshire farmer and entrepreneur Adam Twine to create a solar power station on his land but, instead of allowing a big company in to run the station, offer it up to people within the wider community. A less lucrative option for him – but in keeping with his green ethics.
Investors could bid for shares by putting in an investment of between £250 and £20k maximum. If successful, the cooperative will allow one investment, one vote. The aim was to make the cooperative accessible, open to as many people as possible and giving all an equal say, regardless of their investment or wealth.
Adam has created a similar project before, on the same site, Westmill Windfarm – that had taken years to come to fruition and had also raised a similar sum in community shares but over a longer period, 12 weeks – and a different economic time -2007. Five years on, it has over 2,000 investors and is providing strong returns on that investment.
This time, while the integrity of the project was clear, it seemed a tall order to raise that much money. Together we came up with a marketing strategy which involved much PR, advertising, leafleting, e-mailing and other features. In our case, we looked after PR, advised on other parts of the strategy as and when required.
We’d worked on the project from mid-May working towards the opening of a share offer in mid-June which would stay open for around six weeks – a cut-off date of July 31. The aim was to raise more than £4m from would-be investors to create the UK’s only community-run solar power station.
In fact the world’s largest community run solar power station.
Hundreds invested millions in UK's largest community run solar power station
This was a big ask. We are in a long-term economic depression with many businesses being happy just to survive. And many families suffering a stagnation or drop in income.
In our favour, we had a small, but illustrious team of people hoping to raise that kind of money in a short space of time. And fantastic partners who would step in to help out and support us as much as possible. And the offer on the table was a strong one – returns way above anything a bank could offer at the moment, or for the foreseeable future.
But, of course, PR is never guaranteed. This felt like a test of the value of PR as it’s so difficult to quantify. It’s about brand, messaging, information sharing and story-telling all rolled into one. So we stuck to our basic principles of telling a story well, with accuracy and always a picture. And we always had something new to say – a new nugget, a new angle.
When the share offer closed on July 31, it was over-subscribed by some margin. The message had clearly got out there. How did that happen?
As it was a project rather than a ‘slow burn PR strategy for the long-term’, I tracked some of the coverage we received. I found almost 100 separate items both online and offline. More than 50 per cent were online, and often, but not exclusively, within the specialist ‘green’ or ‘renewable energy’ sector.
More than 30 per cent were articles and features in the local press – within a 40km radius covering Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire and Bristol.
There were around eight radio interviews or mentions in that period and two exposures on regional television. As for the national press, there were five items in total, on and offline.
None of this included the fact that traditional written articles which appear in a newspaper, magazine or paper publication also tend to appear online – so the online total was probably much higher.
As the ideal target was reached, our role has now ended. But has it? When involved in a project like this which had a very specific beginning, middle and end – something always remains.
For me it’s a deeper respect for those who work in the renewable energy sector, who do so, often in the face of much cynicism because they feel it’s the right thing to do. Even though they might have to justify their position often.
Friends have been made, connections forged which will continue in to the future. And it’s this legacy, at a personal level, which will mean the most.