What I learned in 2020: Amanda Whitley | HerCanberra

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What I learned in 2020: Amanda Whitley

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As one of humanity’s most trying years comes to an end, we take a moment to reflect.

Canberrans have fared through devastating bushfires, suffocating smoke, destructive hail and a global pandemic in 2020. So undoubtedly, we’ve learned some things.

Today, HerCanberra founder Amanda Whitley reflects on the year that was.


Writing has always been how I’ve processed adversity.

There’s a kind of therapy in the simple action of the words flowing out of my brain and onto the page. Yet this year, I’ve been unable to find those words, until now.

We emerged from the hail-battered, smoke and fire-filled early months of 2020 half-jokingly calling for a do-over, never dreaming that the worst was yet to come. Nor that the most devastating threat to our way of life was one that we couldn’t see or feel or smell. And that invisibility is what makes it so dangerous, even now.

As someone who has never had a 10-year plan, I went into 2020 knowing that some change was inevitable—for myself, and for HerCanberra. But COVID turned everything I’d worked so hard to build for almost a decade, upside-down in mere days.

“I didn’t know what to do—pandemics weren’t in my risk management framework.”

When COVID hit, the financial impact on HerCanberra was devastating. As a business largely dependent on the events and hospitality sector, we lost 90% of bookings for the month ahead in 24 hours. The future business pipeline evaporated. I didn’t know what to do—pandemics weren’t in my risk management framework.

A friend of mine, a very successful businessperson, advised me to ‘go early and go hard’, and so I did. I immediately put into action the decision to discontinue our print Magazine—something I’d been desperately deferring, although it was inevitable—because passion projects are rarely viable at the best of times, let alone in a pandemic. The events arm of the business was also no more, as gatherings around the world were banned. JobKeeper would help but wasn’t going to work miracles.

I said goodbye to members of our little HerCanberra family whose roles were no longer part of the business’ functional footprint, and to this day I continue to grapple with the fact that some of those relationships are irrevocably broken.

My husband and I pored over the numbers and looked at our options to ride out the much-touted six months of the pandemic. We stripped things back as much as we could—we ran a lean ship as it was—but we still weren’t sure if it would be enough. We needed to trim outgoings as much as possible to give the business the best possible chance of survival. In a throwaway remark, I said, ‘I could always get a contract position…it would take my salary out of the equation,’ (spending a decade in government comms had given me some marketable skills), but it wasn’t real at that point.

I left a comment on a former colleague’s Facebook post, telling her to call me if she needed people. And then, in one of those weird ‘the Universe delivers’ moments, an old school friend—having seen the comment—sent me an Expression of Interest for a role in the ACT Government’s COVID-19 Public Information Coordination Centre. It was the perfect fit for my decades of experience in communication and community-building across the public sector and HerCanberra.

“I cried … then I applied. I got the job. And then I rolled up my sleeves and went to work.”

I cried, wondering how the hell I’d slaved away at my business for nearly 10 years to find myself applying for employment outside of it. I cried some more, and then I applied. I got the job. And then I rolled up my sleeves and went to work.

Things happened fast. The remaining few members of the HerCanberra Team had about 48 hours’ notice that the baby they’d been helping to nurture was now their responsibility. I needed to step away, put some boundaries around my new role. They responded beautifully, understanding that our readers needed their community more than ever. They had an important role to play.

Over the past nine months, they have put their own stamp on the brand, taking it to new places and to a record number of readers. They have grown personally and professionally, and I will never be able to express my gratitude sufficiently for everything they have done for HerCanberra, and for me.

“While I do my part to help look after Canberra’s health and wellbeing during the pandemic, my HerCanberra family takes care of its soul.”

As for me, I went straight into 12-hour days with some of the most dedicated people I have ever had the privilege to work with. We rolled out campaigns in incredibly fast timeframes, we focussed on providing people with critical information about the pandemic through our communication channels. We worked long and hard. We are still working long and hard.

It’s been gruelling, uncertain, sometimes frustrating (COVID has a pesky habit of giving a false sense of security that everything’s ‘going back to normal’ and then throwing a curveball), but ultimately it has been challenging and fulfilling. And I know that I am giving back to my community in a different way. While I do my part to help look after Canberra’s health and wellbeing during the pandemic, my HerCanberra family takes care of its soul.

“As we … approach HerCanberra’s 10th birthday, this is certainly not where I thought I’d be.”

As we near the end of 2020—and approach HerCanberra’s 10th birthday—this is certainly not where I thought I’d be. But there’s been a whole lot of good with the bad.

I am grateful for so many things. The gift of perspective. The support of our community and media colleagues who’ve reached out to say beautiful things. A whole new network of work friends who’ve enriched my life. The reminder that I have a lot of valuable business skills to guide me through the next decade, wherever it may take me.

I am grateful to the team who has worked so hard to get HerCanberra through this—and there is indeed a beautiful light at the end of the tunnel. I do plan to return—I’m just not sure when. My focus is on making sure the business is positioned to survive the rest of the pandemic. Although things are looking up, we’re not out of the woods yet.

Above all, I know that the most important thing is that my friends and family are happy and healthy. Regardless of what 2021 brings, and what our new normal looks like, that’s what really matters.

As 2020 comes to an end, take care of yourself.

I’m an optimist—I will always find the positive in a situation. I’m also a practical person. Throw me into a crisis and I’ll focus on what I need to do to get through it. But sometimes, as I’ve learned, that can have consequences.

After the premature birth of our youngest daughter—and the trauma that accompanied prolonged hospital-based bed rest, months in NICU, and a tough couple of years of dealing with her Chronic Lung Disease—I wasn’t ok. But I didn’t realise that until I’d stopped ‘getting through it’ and allowed myself to really feel it all.

We’ve all just been doing what we have to do, to get through 2020. None of us have been untouched. We’ve all had challenges and really hard things to deal with—whether that’s losing a job, or home schooling, or being separated from our loved ones, or coming to terms with a loss of control, or grieving over things not turning out the way we’d planned.

It’s ok to feel sad, anxious, depressed, frustrated, or anything else you feel. Just please reach out if you are—if it’s one thing that 2020 has taught us, it’s that we truly are stronger together.

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