COVID COMMS #23: Early lessons for comms people from the Leicester lockdown

If you’ve just been tasked with communicating a local lockdown and wondering where to start don’t worry there are some good lessons from Leicester.

The East Midlands city was the first in the UK to see a spike and counter-measures introduced at the start of July.

Very swiftly the public sector in the county drew-up a plan of attack and started to communicate it.

Chris Kealey, head of comms at Leicestershire Police and Katie Pegg, media manager at Leicestershire County Council, took part in the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group Zoom chat to set out some of the lessons they learned to give you a starting point.

Both are keen to stress that this is not a definitive list as each city, town and community across the UK will have slightly different challenges. But they are right in saying this is a starting point.

They are also keen to make clear that there are many more partners involved. Especially Leicester City Council who have taken the brunt of media attention as well as partner organisations who have supported through the Local Resilience Forum.

Here’s a list of bulletpoints from the session.

Work as partners. In England, the Local Resilience Forum is a place where public sector bodies and others come together. Across the UK there are equivalents. Relationships built there in peacetime will more than pay dividends when the time comes.

Pace. Normally, a major incident will see a ‘golden hour’ that is critical for you to shape the response. In a local lockdown this is more like a ‘golden 24-hours’, Chris says. It will feel like slow-motion but you need to pace yourself and manage the flow of information.

Get a map and get it up. Katie was clear to point out that there was a need to clarify where the lockdown area covered. That makes sense. If you’re living on the edge of Leicester, for example, you’d like to know if you’re covered or not. It is the starting point.

Make your media priority local. The world’s media came knocking on the door. Police and County Council, and no doubt others involved, made local media a priority. Leicester Mercury and Leicestershire radio stations were top priority. They were serviced first. This makes sense. Leicester City Council bore the brunt. Police did this for the first 36-hours and while it was tough to hold it makes sense. As time went on they also serviced PA which in turn passed content through to the national media.

Start with your values in your response. If your values are to serve and protect then make that your start point. Chris described this as starting to build from the inside out. That makes sense.

Make public health the core message. It’s a pandemic. The health of the public trumps everything. It’s why there is a lockdown and by keeping that front and centre you keep clarity. In a game of scissors, paper, stone it wins everytime.

Use local voices from your organisation. This makes no end of sense. I loved the idea of Leicestershire using voices from the town starting with their staff in communicating the local lockdown message. I can see this way it’s the town’s lockdown rather than something impose from above.

Use local voices from across your community. Again brilliant. A GP or the Director of Public Health making a point was encouraged, recorded and repurposed. It can only re-inforce the local message.

Use local translators. Leicester is a very diverse city. Up to 12 different languages were used but sanity checking with local staff showed that there was a need for local translation services. Why? Because dialect matters and if people are from a particular community they will respond better to their own dialect.

Use local messengers. Do people know those spokespeople in the community? Are they trusted? Do they have credibility?

Target those most at risk. If you know your patch you’ll know as an organisation how to reach the right people.. So look to focus your messaging – and for the county, where there’s a partial lockdown, this is complex and nuanced. This is local not one size fits all.

The LRF can agree the broad approach and messages. Have something that everyone can sign-up to. Use that as a framework. Across partners meet virtually every day and several times a day if needed.

But leave space for local politics to play out. Communicators are advised to leave breathing space for politics to play out and if it happens that’s fine. We live in a democracy.

Be prepared to ebutt the same content over and over. In Leicester, footage of a cricket match circulated. It was broken up but claim and counter-claim kept surfacing. Be patient and be prepared to play whack-a-mole.

It’s a long haul so rotate staff. This, I think, is unexpectedly key. There is no sense everyone burning out. Days off should be encouraged.

Keep an action log. Make a note of what you do, when you do it and why you do it. This is brilliant advice. It helps build an audit trail and you will be asked to explain and justify certain decisions. That’s fine. If you have a record you can explain. In all likelihood if you don’t have this, they say, you’ll be put under extra pressure to explain your actions. It also helps you keep on top of things. Top advice.

Create low res short video with whatsapp in mind. This is a good tip. WhatsApp groups are widely used but by definition they are impossible to monitor. Misinformation and disinformation can pass through them unchecked. So, a low-res short video from someone in the community making a point iis a useful tool.

Be prepared to work closely with new colleagues at a national level. They will want to help you manage an outbreak – and they’ll have learned lots of lessons from other outbreaks.  Open your doors and work together.  

Social media isn’t always a barometer it’s social media. Because issue ‘X’ is making a lot of noise it doesn’t mean that this is playing big across your community. This is good advice for all sort of things.

A huge thanks to Katie Pegg and Chris Kealey for sparing the time to share their ground-breaking work.

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