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Corona Diaries: Day 1 of Lockdown (Artist in Residence)

Day 1 of my ‘Artist in Residency’ – a nicer way of looking at it. Thanks to Sky Dylan-Robbins, Executive Director, Video Consortium, who said, “Despite the anxiety that today’s torrents of bad news may induce, there’s something to be said for taking a moment to breathe, reassess, and do something we haven’t had time to pursue.” Yes! Like announcing on Twitter that I’m going to be learning Italian over the next three months to show solidarity.

27 million people in the UK watched Boris’ historic speech last night enforcing a lockdown and telling us we must stay at home. Sound speech, clear messaging and tagline – “Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” Note the wartime language: “In this fight, each and every one of us is directly enlisted. On the frontline. Beat the virus. An army of volunteers.” A bit belated, he’s clearly in anguish at having to take these measures, but they are necessary given that the UK saw its highest number of coronavirus deaths in one day, with 87 dying in 24 hours. I’m glad we’re finally joining the rest of Europe. 

Woke up at 6.30 am with the sun streaming through the window, dogs barking and birds singing. It’s not great timing, is it? We’ve been stuck indoors for months due to crap weather, and now, just as everything’s coming back to life, it looks like we’re going to be inside for another three months. Still, I’m not running a marathon on my balcony like that fabulous Frenchman – our restrictions aren’t that draconian.

1.18 pm: text from GOV.UK: “CORONAVIRUS ALERT. New rules in force now: you must stay at home. More info & exemptions at gov.uk/coronavirus. Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.” 

Slight confusion about messaging. The fam all had the same text advising them to stay at home. ‘You may get additional advice on your health condition shortly’. My mum thought this was irresponsible “cos people will be led to believe they are on the 1.5 million list of at-risk people when the text appears to be a confirmation of government policy to the population as a whole. Loads of folk will be panicking for nowt!”

Friend texted in despair after spending 2.5 hours on hold trying to get through to the Universal Credit helpline for some advice. “There’s no other way to continue a claim than to call them. The system is going to stop loads from getting any help at all.” 

Working from home: everyone seems to be using Zoom for online meetings – positive feedback, it’s easy to use. £11.99 for small sessions of up to 100. There’s also a free option, which apparently ends calls after 40 minutes (sounds like an excellent productivity tool!). One of my clients (retail trade body) is digitising its platform for members so we’re exploring webinars, online conferencing, and a portal/forum as all physical events are on hold. Great to see lots of positive news/PR stories coming out about retail and how ‘self-isolation is changing our gifting style’, i.e. we’re buying more gift cards to help loved ones feel better. I’ve already bought three this month for birthdays and Mother’s Day. 

So, I’ll be working on a ‘sunny news blog’ for the retail/gifting world with positive stories. There’s also a free school meals initiative for coronavirus which involves gift cards, so lots of scope for retailers.

Funny how having a tight brief for a client or a ‘lockdown’ in this case helps with creativity – we have to work with what we have so there’s less room for procrastination. As Douglas R Hofstadter said, “I suspect that the welcoming of constraints is, at bottom, the deepest secret of creativity.”

Update on self-employment: 

Proposed amendment to the Coronavirus Bill: “Statutory Self-employment Pay”. If it’s accepted, it compels the government to introduce Regulations for freelancers: 80% of their monthly net earnings, averaged over the last three years OR £2,197 per month, whichever is lower. Write to your MP to support this: ow.ly/53iz50yUow7 – more news on self-employment tomorrow.

5 pm: Had a jog to Bexhill. Seafront was full of joggers, dog walkers, and bikes… cycling is going to be huge this year. Older people are great at social distancing, but millennials don’t seem to have the hang of it yet and carry on walking straight towards you, so I had to do a bit of dodging. It’s nothing personal, but I don’t want to catch this, thanks. Popped into the Co-op on the way home for loo roll and eggs (max 15 people at a time, self-employed bouncer on the door). Empty shelves, which is no surprise, but now the wine shelf and fridges have been stripped bare too. It’s official: the UK’s holing up for three weeks. 

Why aren’t retail staff wearing masks? I’ve been in all the supermarkets, and none of the checkout staff or security are wearing them. The chaps in the corner shops are. This is madness given the number of people they are coming into contact with and the delivery drivers bringing in new stock. We should be looking after these people as well as our NHS staff: they’re on the ‘retail frontline’ after all, and they have to put up with the public all day long…

8 pm: Channel 4 News. The teen on group chat with her mates all night, trying to host a Netflix party. Few tech glitches so it didn’t work, but we’ll try again tonight. Great idea, Netflix!

Some positive news:

After tweeting Dr Mark Ali (Private Harley Street Clinic) to suggest he should offer free COVID-19 testing for frontline workers, I see there’s been a massive backlash about him profiteering from a national crisis. He’s now lost his contract with the supplier so no private testing on his website. Still, he’s made a packet in a few weeks – perhaps he could donate some to the NHS.  

ExCel Centre in London to be turned into coronavirus hospital for up to 4,000 patients

Coronavirus: Joe Wicks keeps children fit with online PE classes

Your NHS Needs You – NHS call for a volunteer army. Join the GoSAM App. 405,000 recruits in one day! I’ll make calls and write letters of hope. 

Free Minecraft education pack to help kids stuck in quarantine. Armchair travel to the international space station and the inside of the human eye. 

Coronavirus: Can Couples Meet up? Couples should test their strength of feeling over whether to isolate together is the official advice from England’s deputy chief medical officer. “Couples need to make a choice and stick with it.”  

Company gives away 100,000 free sex toys and gifts to women stuck in self-isolation

Prada: the latest fashion brand to make medical face masks. Great to see the big brands making medical face masks, hand sanitiser, and funding studies into coronavirus and immunity and intensive care units. 

Enjoy reading this?

Clear messaging (& tone of voice) is crucial at all times – not just during coronavirus!

If you need a little help with your marketing activity in the coming weeks – get in touch today. Nicci@niccitalbot.com.

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Corona Diaries: How to Keep Your Business on Track

I’ve just finished six months of voluntary self-isolation writing a book, so it’s bizarre to find myself facing another one with COVID-19. Major new measures have been announced to protect people at highest risk of coronavirus, so I’ll be getting a letter this week asking me to stay at home for at least 12 weeks, as I take immuno-suppressants for rheumatoid arthritis. I work from home so it’s not a huge change to my daily routine, but I am feeling anxious about the lack of financial support for freelancers, and how I’m going to work and home-school a teenager in a small flat. I washed her school uniform last night – “Bin it!” she said gleefully, “I won’t be needing it.” 

One freelance colleague has lost £1,000 of photography bookings. Another, an events manager, has had all of her work cancelled. I’m lucky that I can work remotely for clients but some of my work has fallen off. I was due to start a three-month part-time contract to finish off the book – not heard a peep, and other work – also events-based, has stalled. I’ve put money aside for tax and other contingencies, but it’s not enough to see me through months of upheaval. Last week the Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced various measures to help companies and employees. Still, there’s not much support for creative freelancers and the five million self-employed in the UK. 

Employees have a guaranteed 80% of their income, up to £2,500 a month. In contrast, the self-employed have so far been advised to claim Statutory Sick Pay at £94.25 a week or Universal Credit, which is a minefield when you have unpredictable earnings. The eligibility criteria for UC include savings, which means those who set aside money for tax may be ineligible. Oliver Heald MP has said that Sunak will make a statement on the self-employed on Monday. Fingers crossed as so many of my freelancer friends are worried sick. 

The National Union of Journalists is lobbying for support for freelance workers. It has some policy recommendations here, e.g. that the 80% rule be extended to the self-employed, based on recent tax returns along with a temporary cancellation of the savings rule for UC. This would help freelance members at the bottom of the earnings scale. It seems to strengthen the case for a Universal Basic Income going forward! 

I can’t control the big stuff – my heart goes out to Italy – almost 800 deaths yesterday, and it’s heartbreaking to see a country brought to its knees. So, I’m focusing on the things I can control – my environment, self-care, online chats and campaigning, and using this unexpected pause to read, study online, and do some business planning.  

Here’s what I’ve been doing to keep my business on track during COVID-19. 

MONEY – I’ve given myself a pay cut. I have a limited company and pay myself a monthly salary, so I’ve reduced this for now. I can cut back to the essentials as I won’t be travelling to London, doing coffees with clients, using hot desk space etc. I’m reviewing all my subscriptions and memberships and cancelling those I can do without. I’ve been using Xero for my accounting, which is expensive – £36 a month as I had EUR payments coming in, so I’m switching to Free Agent, which offers a 30-day free trial and seems more contractor-friendly. I’ve found a cheaper online accountant who specialises in creative businesses. I’ll do my tax return at the end of this month to get it out of the way, so I know what tax I have to pay next year. 

Some guidance from HMRC for small businesses and the self-employed and from The Guardian.

TIME TO HUSTLE – I rent my home, so will speak to my agency to see what help is available and haggling with utility providers and suppliers to see what they can do. I’ve applied for a grant from the Society of Authors contingency fund for authors and journalists and joined the Creative Industries Federation (they are offering free six-month membership for all freelancers and microbusinesses). There are small grants available from various charities, so see what’s available in your field. Facebook is offering cash grants and ad credits for small businesses.

TRAINING – I’ve signed up for some online courses and webinars to learn new skills. AllBright, a club and community that celebrates and connects women at work, is running 20 digital courses at 2 pm every day, so an excellent opportunity to dip my toe in and see what they offer. FEU Training has a digital learning centre for creative freelancers (free to NUJ/union members). Also, check out Skillshare.

ONLINE WORK – it’s a good time to update the CV. I use Indeed, We Work Remotely, Hoxby Collective, Yuno Juno, The Dots, Freelance Alliance, and LinkedIn to find remote work. Search hashtags: #remotejobs #remotework #workingfromhome #JournoJobs. I also subscribe to newsletters that list writing jobs, e.g. The Professional Freelancer, Journo Resources, Freelance Writing Jobs

OPPORTUNITY/MINDSET – things are going to be very different over the next few months, so I will use this opportunity to think, review my business and what I want to do next. As Debbie Wosskow, co-founder of AllBright, said, “It’s an unexpected pause. I’ve never spent any time in my own home, and now I’m here!” Make the most of it and enjoy family time. Small businesses might need more online content and social media to stay connected while they’re shut, so I’ll pitch my services around locally.

DIGITALISE YOUR BUSINESS – What income streams can you digitalise? I’ve seen yoga teachers, fitness instructors and nutritionists doing online classes via Zoom. I wrote a book a few years ago which got pulled, so a good time to publish it as an e-Book. What digital products can you create now for future passive income? I use Free Conference Call for team calls, Skype, WeChat groups, Trello for planning, Twitter and LinkedIn to share work.

SELF-CARE – It’s tempting to scroll the newsfeed all day, but it makes me feel anxious and unable to concentrate, so time to stop. It’s also easy to spend all day on your laptop when you work from home and not take proper breaks. It’s spring and the weather’s changing so I’ll go for walks and jogs to clear my head. Check out online fitness classes, and the Headspace app for meditation. 

COMMUNITY – This is a war on a virus, and there’s been nothing like it in my lifetime, so we are having to rethink how we live, work and interact. We’re in this together and need to help each other. I’ve joined Nextdoor to find out what’s going on in my neighbourhood, and AllBright Connect – they asked for volunteers to do skills swaps so a good opportunity to make new contacts. Follow hashtags on Twitter like #SupportFreelancers and local Coronavirus groups on Facebook to find out what’s going on in your area.

CAMPAIGNING – I’ve signed and shared several petitions to support freelancers and the self-employed: 

Don’t Leave Freelancers Behind in the Coronavirus Crisis

Self-employed in Statutory Sick Pay

Self-employed 80% of Their Median Salary During the Coronavirus Pandemic

I’ve written to my MP calling for the benefit to be extended immediately to the self-employed. Here’s a template letter from the NUJ which you can adapt. I’m also following various MPs on Twitter like Tracy Brabin, John McDonnell, and Keir Starmer who are campaigning to help the self-employed. 

Keep calm, carry on. We can survive, we will thrive! Let’s see what happens next week. I hope more measures are introduced to help the self-employed. Celebrate your achievements and have a virtual glass of vino with your colleagues to help each other through this crisis. If you’re home-schooling – there are some great ideas here. This is an opportunity to do things differently, and it will lead to a more creative and connected way of living.

Stay safe, keep well, and look after those around you! 

What are you doing to keep your business on track? Send me your tips and follow me on Twitter @niccitalbot, I’d love to hear from you. 

Clear messaging (& tone of voice) is crucial at all times – not just during coronavirus!

Enjoy reading this?

If you need a little help with your marketing activity in the coming weeks – get in touch today. Nicci@niccitalbot.com.