You’d have to be Rip Van Winkle not to have spotted the gathering storm clouds over the British economy.
After two hard years of COVID-19 we’re facing a third hard year pushed by declining incomes and growing inflation.
More than 100 people joined the Public Sector Comms Headspace discussion to think through ways to communicate. This blog is a summary of the debate gathered under the Chatham House Rule. It covers the broad ideas without identifying individuals.
Huge thanks to my group admin colleague David Grindlay who took great notes that further jogged my memory.
What the landscape looks like
You are alone again together
When COVID-19 struck there was a sense of impending disaster and a collective will to help. Strong central messaging shone a light into the darkness and showed a way forward.
Right now, there’s a sense of impending disaster but without central direction. Communicators are alone together. But the public sector only has to look at the pandemic for lessons. There is a need to co-operate and collaborate with partners not by adding a logo but through action.
You need to collaborate and listen
The answer through the pandemic was to work together with partners burt also the community. This means speaking to the community to understand the best ways to flag-up help and what to actually call that help.
Actually talk to the community to see what they think and then listen before you act.
Can you listen and counsel for others to listen?
You need to be careful what you call it
Warm banks? Yes, the media has used this phrase. But several speakers pointed out the danger in using this term. What image does it conjure? An empty community centre, refugees wrapped in rags huddled around a radiator and the sound of a ticking clock.
Instead, the idea was put forward to run events to encourage people to come that just happened to be in warm places. So, instead think activity first. Cinema Afternoons for older people, Play Days for families.
Can you not cause stigma?
You need to provide place to cook as well as be warm
Somewhere where you can microwave some food and charge your phone may be handy.
Can you do this?
You need to be talking of ‘we’ not ‘you’
Language matters. One person spoke of the conscious decision to steer away from the distancing ‘you’ to the more community-minded ‘we’. That makes sense.
Community led content needs to be shaped by the community but also to come from the community itself.
You need to acknowledge the problem, too.
Can you bridge the gap?
You need to be careful where you signpost
There’s help to be given. There’s already a network of places whose mission is to help flag-up tips and advice.
It makes more sense to signpost to the help that’s there with Citizens Advice, the Energy Saving Trust and even the respected Money Saving Expert for tips. There was some debate about crowdsourcing advice and issuing it with a legal disclaimer. I’m not sure that wouldn’t rebound.
Can you vouch for the advice?
You need to be careful where you communicate
The web is a clear way to communicate but a voice of reason pointed out that parts of the population who really needed help weren’t online.
A newspaper delivered to every home in these circumstances makes a lot of sense.
Have you missed anyone?
You need to be careful to know your audiences
The point was made that there’s a section of society who are already well plugged into support networks. They’ll be the easy to reach.
The harder to reach in this case will be the comparably well off with jobs who may find their incomes cut off at the knees. I often talk about in training the need to recogniser that you have a variety of audiences and the one and done comms campaign no longer works even if it ever did.
How best to reach them?
You need to connect with NHS and the council
Mental health advice is just one avenue to go down. There’ll be other health advice. There’s also the risk of more domestic violence.
Can you connect?
You need to be careful of the politics
COVID-19 saw the country largely come together against a common enemy of the virus.
This chapter of British life is much more divisive. A Conservative council may be looking for different terms than another party. This may cause problems if you’re linking to a group for advice who are also campaigning for a change of Government policy.
Can you navigate these waters?
You need to talk to payroll
Giving staff an option to have an advance on their salary may jeep the wolf from the door.
Can you do this?
You need to educate the frontline with new skills
Financial wellbeing courses for staff may be an asset as well as giving public-facing staff the skills to spot people in trouble and what they do.
Can you do this?
You need to see if your community can help each other
Toy banks, grow your own initiatives and other community places may help.
Do you have such places already?
You need to be braced for incoming snark
As the crisis deepens people may get tetchy and angry. Can you spare a thought for the social media team? And give them meaningful support?
If you’ve worked in the public sector over the past few years you’ll have done some hard yards already. You may not see the benefit of what you are doing but it does happen. It seems like a mountain but while you may feel alone there are so many in the same boat.
One thing that shone through the discussion is a willingness to help but a realisation that there are more crosswinds with the cost of living crisis than were found in the pandemic.
But lessons learned in 2020 can help you in 2022, too. Work with people. Comms are part of the solution but they are not the solution alone.
Thank you to everyone who took part in the discussion.