COVID COMMS #19: Comms lessons from the Bournemouth beach major incident

When the history of the pandemic gets written there’s sure to be a paragraph on the hundreds of thousands of people who headed to Bournemouth to enjoy a sunny day by the sea.

Quite how the town coped is anyone’s guess but it was a real delight to hear Rachael Mills‘ account. The PR and communications manager at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council gave some key learning from during a Zoom chat for members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group.

It’s absolutely clear that Rachel and the rest of the council team and other public sector communicators in the town performed heroics with long hours over a number of days.

With her permission, here are some of the key points of learning.

As the numbers unfolded, one of the first steps was to turn social channels into broadcast channels. Normally, the council is responsive to question and comment but as the situation unfolded the queries were outstripping the ability to answer them.

As the media queries escalated a system of triage was introduced. As the world’s media rang, there wasn’t enough capacity to answer all of the questions and interview requests straight away. A triage system allowed the council to prioritise those media companies who were most important.

As the media queries flooded in, the one talking head needed extra help. The council Leader won credit for their handling of the situation and calmness in answering questions. They were backed-up on the ground with council staff who maintained social distancing but helped marshall the media requests.

A second briefed interviewee would have been handy. The main spokesperson played a blinder but the the organisation needs to have some capacity for someone else to take the slack.

Comms channels on the ground came into their own. Town centre LED messageboards became an important part of the equation as the council tried to communicate with people.

As a community that relies on tourism there were two audiences, visitors and residents. Channels to talk to residents were used to speak with residents. With residents there was an awful lot of myth-busting to be done. Channels for visitors delivered messages to visitors.

Good relationships built in peacetime can bear fruit in a time of crisis. The council had good links with the Local Resilience Forum and others that had been built up over months. When a real emergency happened those relationships were already in place.

For staffing, people were reserved to be the early shift and the late shift. There was no sense in letting everyone run at the issue at the same time. Some resource had to be kept back.

A thread of tweets from a personal account really cut through. Rachael used her own Twitter account to write the explanation of what the council had done and why. By using her account she put a human face on the issue.

Picture credit: Documerica / Flickr

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