As the country emerges from one of the most challenging periods in its history, here’s a look at what we’ve been up to at Comsteria since the Prime Minister announced unprecedented measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 back on March 23rd.

Overnight, face-to-face training dates which account for the majority of our business were either cancelled or switched to webinar delivery. 2 years ago, we invested in our own audio/visual production facilities at our home studio and were well equipped to deliver a high quality remote learning experience.

Emma’s background in education was a huge help as we were able to adapt our courses to this new delivery method and then deliver them with confidence.

In those first few weeks, ‘Zoom’ emerged as one of the most intuitive and popular platforms, which immediately led to concerns about its security credentials, many of which are now resolved. Despite the reassurances from Zoom, we know how important security is for clients and there are situations (for crisis comms and some media training work) where we advise against the use of Zoom. In any event, when clients choose us for training they are able to choose to have the session delivered via GoToMeeting or Zoom (both of which Emma and I hold PRO licences for), or simply add us as ‘Hosts’ on whichever platform they use themselves. We have extensive experience of Cisco Webex, Adobe Connect and Microsoft Teams. There’s no ‘one platform’ that’s the answer to everything; we’ll always encourage our clients to make the right choice for them.

In those early days of lockdown, our company mission proved extremely useful at giving our business a focus, at a time when we had no idea what life and work would look like week to week. We have 2 children at Primary School and in amongst repositioning the business and ensuring we kept as many active training dates as we could, we had to keep them safe, entertained and try to give them some sort of home education experience. It was by no means easy but we know it was nothing compared to the reality for many, particularly families with key workers in them. Some of our closest friends and family are serving police officers or NHS staff and we are in awe of the work they do. I find it hard to resist a business lesson when I encounter one but in terms of commitment, motivation and customer service, give me a fraction of what these people have.

For a while we thought we might benefit from a Comsteria app but quickly realised the sums of money involved in customising it to do what we needed it to do were beyond us at such an uncertain stage for business, and the cheaper ‘template’ driven options weren’t of sufficient quality – particularly when much of what we wanted to do revolved around delivery of our training via live and pre-recorded video. The app will have to wait!

But the mission guides us: ‘Comsteria is here to help every organisation communicate more effectively’. As some of our larger clients began to talk about a permanent change to their working arrangements we realised the world wasn’t going back to normal. Training had changed forever, and suddenly, our mission was accelerated. It also became easier to achieve. Pre lockdown we were spending several hours each day travelling to and from a training venue. Clients would book us (and pay) for either a half day or full day course (regardless of how long it would take us to effectively deliver the material and ensure the knowledge was transferred and clients had begun to develop the skills). We knew from 10 years of working in this field the hassle our clients had to go through every time when booking a course to arrange a suitable venue, book catering and then disrupt the working week to get the participants in the same place at the same time.

Online, on-demand training delivery is overdue and offers far more flexibility than old style corporate training. We immediately made 2 of our most popular courses ‘Smartphone Video Production‘ and ‘Secrets Of Successful Podcasting‘ available as Video On Demand courses (with more coming soon) but it was clear there was real demand for live, webinar delivery which we are delighted to offer and that’s been a real success, with multiple sessions and new clients coming on-board to experience it. As life return to normal, we will of course offer sessions as traditional face-to-face training but we’d urge clients to consider webinar delivery as the default, perhaps with video as a backup. If you’re unsure and want to discuss what option would work best for you needs, please get in touch.

Lockdown, a renewed focus on our mission and what was previously redundant travel time now available to us, freed us up to work on enhanced marketing of our new look training offering.

Emma set to work creating ‘Comsteria Client Stories‘ – a series of interviews with businesses we’ve worked with who’ve reached new heights through their use of video and our Instagram now boasts what I consider to be the essential guide to smartphone video tools. Take a look if you haven’t already and don’t forget Emma’s Smartphone Video Newsletter which is fast becoming an essential read for everyone who runs their own business or works in Corporate Comms. It’s packed with great advice, ideas and (quite often!) free stuff we think you’ll find useful.

I wasn’t sure at first how media training would work via webinar delivery. A key element of our session is to record interviews with the client and then play them back, so the client sees themselves. We then discuss how they come across and I coach them on how to improve. Recording part of a webinar then playing it back into that same session proved technically challenging but we quickly worked out a system that did exactly what we wanted, while still offering clients the privacy and security they need. Our new look media training session is delivered via webinar 1-1 or in small groups. It’s a shorter 2-3 hour course with much more emphasis on practical interviews and tailored feedback, there’s the option of a short follow up session after the course and all this means it can be offered at a reduced price which is proving very popular. Whether you are interested in giving interviews to TV, radio or newspapers or are looking to improve your presentation skills or public speaking skills, Comsteria can help you get your message across with clarity and personality. Get in touch to find out more.

With all this going on, our podcast hasn’t quite had the same level of devotion I normally give it! But something had to give! The truth is we’ve been spending considerable amounts of time helping other organisations with their own podcasts – another area of real growth during this lockdown – and we we did achieve great results with a short series I recorded aimed at helping businesses understand the TikTok social network.

I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned our online retail division! (What do you mean you didn’t know we had one??!!) A few years ago, we worked with some clients who ran their own online shops and we had very little direct experience of that world ourselves. So we decided to start and Bishopton Toys was born. It’s always been a fun (and highly educational) side project but in the first few weeks of lockdown, with many shops closed and parents trying to occupy their children it went into over-drive! From a profit making business point of view, perhaps not my smartest move as the margins are very fine and there were days I could have done without packaging toys up and standing in a queue at the Post Office to send out the deliveries, but for learning and insight into the world of e-commerce it’s fantastic, and means we have more credibility than some of our competitors when we’re speaking with clients who work in the online retail space.

It’s been an incredible few months and of course the work continues with more uncertainty ahead for us and so many other businesses. By far, the most important point, is that our immediate family are all safe and well but we know many others who have not been so fortunate. This is a horrible, horrible illness which has made us all more aware of our mortality and what’s truly important – and it’s not business. That’s for sure.

It’s been fascinating to see how communities have pulled together during this period. In those early lockdown days, there was widespread criticism in the media of people ‘panic buying’ in supermarkets and of course, that’s an idiotic thing to get involved in. Of course there was some deplorable behaviour going on, but what wasn’t reported in the newspapers was that a proportion of the ‘bulk buying’ was actually people buying essential goods for other, more vulnerable people around them that couldn’t make it out. Then later, we saw family quiz nights on Zoom, community bingo out in the street, and who could forget those singers, bagpipe players, DJs and all sorts of other talented people doing whatever they could to brighten up our lives.

I became the ‘Zoom Quiz’ host of choice for our extended family (I genuinely believe my format would transfer very well to television if any of my old STV Productions pals are reading this) and also set aside a chunk of time to wok with Gary Ennis at NSDesign on our book, ‘Embrace The Space‘ which is going to be a must read for any business wanting better results from social media and all things digital. It’s been great fun writing it and I hope you’ll take a look when it’s published probably around early September.

I’ve said for years that in a fair world, frontline NHS workers would receive Premier League footballers’ wages and I’d include school teachers in that too. The disruption and uncertainty they’ve had to cope with has been immense, they’ve come under intense political scrutiny, dealt with hugely limited infrastructure and all the while having their own families to look after and, for some, continuing to go into work each day at the ‘hub’ schools and work on the frontline, putting their own health at risk.

I’ll write another post looking specifically at the NHS and all the messaging around COVID-19 and the lockdown, but for me, something that made a real difference was frontline NHS staff sharing their own experiences of what they were encountering at work each day. Their own words, their own experiences, their own emotions, all cut through in a far more engaging way than any of the ‘official’ communications. Of course, we need both. But I do believe those stories from the frontline saved lives. And of course, we must not forget how many of our NHS staff paid the ultimate price.

So, what lies ahead? Well, I’m in dire need of a haircut and could do with losing 2 stone (nothing new there, then!) but we’ll try and give our children some sort of fun summer holiday (will be much easier when legislation allows them into Gran and Grandpa’s house!) and Comsteria continues with its mission – to help every organisation communicate more effectively.

Thank you for sticking with us. Emma and I wish you success and health going forward.