COVID COMMS #38: Why binning box-ticking comms to reach minority groups is a good thing

We’re at a tricky point in the pandemic where we have a tested vaccine but it’ll all fail if people aren’t happy to get the jab.

So how do we crack this problem? Simple. You bin the tired box-ticking communications in favour of something that works.

I spend a lot of time working with teams and looking for best practice. I have to tell you that it makes my heart sing to see so much good work in this critical phase. Bright teams have taken up the baton and are starting to reach hard-to-reach communities.

How to reach minority groups: first talk to them

How? The answer is straight forward. Work out what communities you have. Talk to them. Listen to the answers. Understand what barriers they have to having a vaccine. Ask them what’s the best way to reach them. Do it. Repeat. Then keep repeating.  

Firstly, you’ll be best served by giving the anti-vaxx, 5G conspiracy theorists a wide birth. Nothing you can say to them will win the radicalised over. Don’t even engage with them. It saps your time and gives them a platform. It’s proven that running a news piece that says ‘X hits back at claims of Y’ people just remember the Y. So, don’t do it. For example, Glasgow City Council ban conspiracy theorists from their social media channels. Good. That’s not a free speech issue. That’s a stopping people dying issue.

There are so many places doing a really good job where communicators have ripped up the rule book

Some basic principles

Do understand that people have got concerns.

Understand what those concerns are and then look to put the information in front of people in a place where they will see it. Posting a Q&A on your website isn’t doing that. It’s lazy box-ticking. Go to where people are with a spokesperson who they’ll listen to.If that’s a Muslim doctor talking to Muslims then do that. If that’s a footballer talking to the white working class population then do that.

Local content wins every time

We’ve all seen the UK Government ‘Hands, Face, Space’ graphics. We’ve grown bored of seeing it and it no longer lands. A piece of work I did with Black Country showed UK government content getting shared on average once. But the local video of doctors at Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust hit gold. That got shared 800 times. Exactly the same message but with a local accent.

Go to where communities are or build a place for them

Hackney Council have used WhatsApp and a Jewish member of the Jewish volunteer ambulance service Hatzola to front a video to reach observant Jews. Why WhatsApp? Because that’s what the Jewish population use. That’s brilliant. Brent Council have run webinars for the black community and promoted them with black church and community leaders to reach the black community. That’s brilliant. 

Make getting the vaccine normal

In the UK more than 40 million people use Facebook and two thirds are members of Facebook groups. When the vaccine started to be rolled out groups I’m a member of were filled with people saying how their Mums and Dads were getting the jab. Some members talked proudly about how they’d had the jab. Encourage it. Share it.  

Enlist the community’s support with an army of social sharers

In Birmingham, the city council is recruiting 500 people into a team where they can actively like and share public health content across social media. That’s such a bright idea. At the start of all this, more than five million people volunteered to help[ the NHS. For the most part they’ve not ben pressed into service. There’s a big load of people who could be happy to be added to an email list, WhatsApp group or Facebook group to ask them to like and share. We complain about social media companies’ algorithms.Mass liking and sharing is loved by the algorithms. Use it.

Use the channels the community uses

Don’t think the Bangladeshi community will magically head to you website just because you’ve posted something in Bengali. By all means post something to your website or your YouTube channel. But how are you going to get that in front of the Bengali community? Or maybe flyers in Bengali delivered door-to-door by Bengali speakers is the right answer?

It’s not ‘one and done,’ it’s a marathon not a sprint

For me, Brent Council in London is one of the places that’s getting it right. They’ve dumped the box-ticking to work out where their communities are. They have identified communities that are vaccine sceptic and are putting the information in front of them in a way the community want. Importantly, they’re approaching it as a marathon and know this constant chipping away will take time.

“Countering vaccine hesitancy is a marathon, not a sprint. In Brent, to help people make informed choices, we made a conscious decision to avoid a hard sell and instead deliver messages through those most trusted in the community. Our series of webinars has given thousands of residents the chance to ask questions of faith leaders, health professionals and councillors – who offered reassurance by providing facts, not fear.

“Bespoke events like these, combined with the ongoing work of our Community Champions in some of the wards most badly hit by the pandemic, have helped us to get messages out more effectively. The early signs are that confidence in the vaccine is growing in Brent.”

Dr John Licorish, Brent’s Deputy Director of Public Health

There are so many places doing a really good job where communicators have ripped up the rule book and are working shoulder-to-shoulder with public health, councillors, NHS, emergency planning, community and others. There is no magic channel that will reach everyone. What is magic is asking where your communities are. What worries them? How can you get the right information to them in a way that they want?  It’s a simple approach. It’s more time consuming but it’s more effective. With lives at stake this is the most important thing.   

Dan Slee is a digital communications consultant who specialises in the public sector. He is member of the CIPR local public services committee.

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