SURVEY: How public sector comms people have fared working through the pandemic part 1: the big picture

When the story of the first 12-months of the COVID-19 pandemic is written it will record more than 100,000 dead.

It will also record Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS’ address to the nation.

Nothing will record profound sense of shock and alarm in those first few days in what was the beginning of a long trudge to try and find normality.

Without question the death rate would have been far higher but for public sector communicators who were enlisted into the biggest crisis since World War Two.

But what impact has it had on them?

The price paid

Stress, longer hours, a retreat to working from home and a loss of face-to-face office connections have been what fire, police, NHS, local and central government comms teams have faced.

In July 2020, I started a survey of fire, police, NHS, central and local government communicators which has turned into a rolling tracker that’s captured some of the ebb ands flow.

It reveals the secret price paid by those asked to support those on the frontline.

In many places there is no off switch and burn-out is present. In others, the changes have been welcomed.

Worryingly, it’s a price paid with a tsunami of mental health problems, deteriorating physical health, increased isolation and stress often in the face of a lack of leadership, information and resources.

In this blog post I run through 12-months of figures that are likely to throw a long shadow across the lives of those involved.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Feel like I’m “Living at work” rather than “working from home” – no boundaries between working day and down time.”

 “I have gained a lot from the pandemic so this outweighs the hard times.”

Most say it’s getting easier

At last, in summer 2021 the indicators finally show that working in the pandemic is getting easier. More than 40 per cent gave this positive feedback in the survey. That’s a figure that’s double those who think it is getting harder.

Q: Is working in the pandemic getting easier or harder?

But health continues to suffer

Across the pandemic, mental health and physical health among public sector people has taken a battering.

Worryingly, this isn’t improving.

With physical health, 52 per cent say it has worsened in the most recent survey in April and May 2021. Mental health has also taken a beating with 58 per cent of public sector people reporting deteriorating mental health.

This is the canary in the coalmine for the sector.

Q: Is your mental health getting better or worse?

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working from home gave me more time to exercise at the start and end of the working day.”

With a real national push to care for our wellbeing I have actually worked out more and more consistently since the start of the pandemic than before.

“Less time and motivation to exercise, higher stress.”

“I’ve had a couple of emergency hospital visits due to stress related symptoms. Found myself crying with anxiety and work overload and no real support.”

The positives still hold

Across the pandemic, a consistent three out of four have reported they have felt as though they are working for the common good.

Around half have felt through the last 12-months as though they are part of a team.

Feeling as though you are part of an organisation that has felt valued has been more problematic. In June 2020, 41 per cent reported this but it slipped to a quarter through the remainder of the year rallying again to 40 per cent in May and June 2021.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

 “Had a couple of serious wobbles, but learnt better how to deal with them.”

The negatives remain

The darker side of the coin in working through the pandemic has been the impact on home.

A third have consistently experienced problems with home schooling and a tenth with looking after a loved one.

Stress as spring 2021 turned into summer remains an endemic issue with 74 per cent reporting it as an issue – a four per cent improvement on January 2021.

However, lack of direction has also been a problem.

In April and May 2020, 40 per cent reported this with UK Government and a third reporting the same issue with home governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A lack of leadership from the comms person’s own organisation has improved by five points to 25 per cent.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Lack of support at work and unappreciated in my job, became more apparent during covid. Felt like comms was seen as disposable as we weren’t physically seen as often.”

A lack of resources is biting

Enough tools and staff to do the job has remained a consistent problem with 23 per cent reporting a lack of staff sliding to 36 per cent in the most recent study. This was mirrored by a lack of resources to do the job surging from 24 per cent in 2020 to 38 per cent in April and May 2021.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working in a comms team means you’re often on your own working with services, and not being in the office means you often feel very isolated from the rest of your team. My manager has been absent and I’m struggling to fight to get things taken seriously by upper management and having to stand up to lots of people within the service… and failing to win the arguments a lot of the time. This is one of the biggest impacts on my mental health – but there are so many others.”

Winter was the hardest period

Each period of the pandemic has had its own challenges and problems. The survey showed winter with lockdown 2.0 was the hardest for 45 per cent of public sector comms people. That beat lockdown 1.0 with 26 per cent. Regional lockdowns in the autumn (11 per cent) was third toughest with just four per cent saying the opening months of 2021 were hardest.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“It worsened during the winter 2020/21 but improved as restrictions lifted.”

Q: Which period of the pandemic was hardest?

The working from home dilemma

It’s clear that working from home has been Marmite. Some love some don’t. As we look at how we go back to the office heads of comms and managers need to know that they’ll have people keen on the idea and those who hate it.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

“Working from home is less stressful and tiring than travelling to the office every day. Prefer the peace and quiet to think.”

“Home has merged into office and the boundaries of the working day have disappeared- I feel like the usual 9-5 mon to drive has been replaced with 24/7 and after a year, my mind, body and, dare I say it, passion has wilted away.”

Abuse is rampant

More than 12-months into the pandemic and abuse is worsening.

Those seeing abuse aimed at their fire, council, police, council or government department has risen from 27 per cent seen weekly to 31 per cent. Verbal abuse aimed at individuals has almost doubled from seven to 13 per cent as a weekly incident.

Racist abuse is seen daily by 16 per cent of respondents – that’s up from nine per cent last summer.

The back to business-as-usual mistake

The figures are alarming and they paint a picture which can often be toxic for those enduring it. There is a health penalty to be paid and how to respond to support staff is one of the challenges facing people.

There is anecdotal talk of a big push to normality when there’s nothing to give.

SURVEY FEEDBACK

My mental health has taken an absolute battering, mainly down to the workload. Not we’re coming through the other side of the pandemic all I want to do is rest and reset, but business as usual has kicked back in and the chief is talking about three months of hard work to get the organisation back on track. We haven’t got any more to give.”

In part two, I’ll look at the data country-by-country and also sector by sector.

2021 NUMBERS: Ofcom media & stats for the UK

Portrait

If you look at a glacier while drinking a cup of coffee you’ll think there’s no such thing as global warming.

Compare snapshots of the same ice over time and you’ll see how much has changed.

During the turbulence of 2020 we could all hear the cracks of ice moving below our feet. We knew something was happening but not what. In the media landscape Ofcom are the scientists analysing the data to see what the changes.

Online Nation published in June 2021 gives a picture of how much has changed. Want a two word summary?

‘Changed lots.’

But the real value is going to the report and spending time reading it yourself.

Why? Because you’ll find data more relevant to you.

Until you do, here’s bitesize summaries.

The headline figures for UK over 18s

94 per cent are online.

82 per cent use social media.

82 per cent was the increase in food and drink sales online in 2020.

91 per cent of over 65s online use Facebook.

62 per cent play games online.

On average they spend three hours thirty seven minutes online.

On average they spend one hour twenty one minutes watching video on demand sites like Netflix or BBC iplayer.

Zoom soared from 200,000 users peaking at 13.7 million users in March 2020 falling to 10.4 million at the start of 2021.

88 per cent receive or send email.

Age dictates how much time is spent online. For over 55s, this is two hours 46 minutes a day while for 18-to-24-year-olds it rises to four hours 31 minutes a day.

Headlines for children

Gaming and video dominate how under 18s use the internet.

Children spend three hours 48 minutes online a day.

More than 95 per cent of children use video sharing platforms.

55 per cent of under 18s have had a negative experience online.

Boys prefer YouTube for social video.

Girls prefer TikTok for social video.

40 per cent of 13 to 17-year-olds post video content.

Of five to seven-year-olds, 30 per cent use social media, 37 per cent use messaging and 95 per cent watch video

Of eight to 11-year-olds, 44 per cent use social media, 64 per cent messaging and 96 per cent watch video.

For 12 to 15-year-olds 87 per cent use social media, 91 per cent messaging apps and 99 per cent watch video.

Social video

We watch a lot of short videos of 10 minutes or less.

The most popular trends of what to watch in 2020 were music video followed by home exercise with campaigns on hot topics like black lives matter in third place.

31 per cent of over 18s post video.

Social media users

The age demographics show a different pattern of platform use.

Facebook is strong across older age groups while 16 to 24-year-olds like a range of apps from YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest, Snapchat and Instagram.

News consumption

More than half of adults go online with news as a reason for switching on their web-enabled devices.

But trust is low for what people read and watch online with just 16 per cent trusting something from social media – almost a third of those who distrust it.

64 per cent look at online headlines weekly.

35 per cent get their news from social media.

News and information sites in the UK

There’s a useful breakdown of news and info sites.

Local news is important with Reach plc – formerly Trinity Mirror – topping the charts.

  1. Reach plc 41.4 million
  2. News UK 40.4 million
  3. Mail online / Daily Mail 37.4 million
  4. BBC 37.0 million
  5. gov.uk 25.9 million
  6. Wikipedia 24.8 million
  7. Independent / London Evening Standard 24.6 million
  8. NHS 23.4 million
  9. USA Today 20.6 million
  10. Immediate Media 20.4 million

Access to online v print

Print remains strong amongst the older generation while it is a minority pursuit for those under 55. However, online news is strong.

Age / Print news consumption / Online news consumption

15 to 24-yers-old / 21 / 61

25 to 24-years-old / 19 / 57

35 to 44-years-old / 22 / 63

45 to 54-years-old / 44 / 56

55 to 64-years-old / 51 / 46

65-years-old / 76 / 26

The post popular UK sites by minutes-a-day

  1. Google 52 minutes
  2. Facebook 29 minutes
  3. TikTok 26 minutes
  4. Netflix 16 minutes
  5. Spotify 15 minutes
  6. Snapchat 8 minutes
  7. Twitter 5 minutes
  8. Roblox 5 minutes
  9. Verizon 5 minutes
  10. Microsoft 4 minutes

The most popular messaging apps by users

  1. WhatsApp 31.4 million
  2. Messenger 21.1 million

Nextdoor makes an appearance

The US-owned firm has started to have cut through in the UK with 3.9 million users declared.

The platform is overwhelmingly used by older users with 54 per cent of users over 54-years-old. Just two per cent are aged 18 to 24.

Audio is starting to make a mark

Clubhouse has pioneered audio chat on social media but has failed to make a lasting mark.

Just 130,000 people use the invite-only is app with Twitter launching ‘Spaces’ and Facebook experimenting with their equivalent ‘hotline.’

COVID COMMS #44: Up to date data on how UK people are consuming media

Portrait

In this phase of the pandemic we are opening up restrictions but storm clouds gather posed by new COVID-19 variants.

A week or two back I mapped the disinterest people had in the pandemic in community Facebook groups.

This week, I’m reading the rolling Ofcom data that shows how people are getting pandemic information.

If you need to reach people to tell them about coronavirus its worth spending time on these numbers.

Here’s the main take outs from May 2021.

You need to know

We’re not consuming as much COVID-19 info

At the start of the pandemic, 99 per cent of people looked once a day for news on the pandemic. That’s fallen to 81 per cent 15-months in.

Online, 33 per cent of people haven’t shared anything about the virus in the past week – a figure creeping up.

We check daily

Long gone are the days of being glued to rolling news. We’ll dip in once a day. That goes for all age groups. Around 80 per cent of all age groups do this.

We still talk to friends and family

We share COVID-19 most to friends and family rather than online. Around a third do this.

We go to traditional media

Eight out 10 people take their COVID-19 updates from traditional media. That’s print, online, broadcast and through a news outlet’s social media channel.

We don’t go to official channels

If you’re updating public sector sites thank you but a minority will head to your sites.

UK Government sites attract between 15 and 20 per cent of the population with the figure falling to around 14 per cent for national NHS messages.

Local government sites are even lower with just six per cent of under 24s seeing content rising to 15 per cent for over 65s.

Local NHS sites are lower still with no more than eight per cent of people heading to them.

We listen to officials

Across all ranges, officials remain the unexpected stars of COVID-19. At least a third of all ages take information from the likes of the Chief Medical Officer or Director of Public Health.

That’s a figure than Facebook across the board.

We notice online ads on social media

Eighty per cent of social media users have seen online ads about the pandemic whether they be pop-ups, banner ads or boosted posts.

We can see misinformation

A fifth of people have seen misinformation in the past week which is down slightly with under 35s most likely to see false information.

Trends by age demographic

16-24s get their data from a wide spread of places

Despite using social media extensively, this age group look to traditional news sources for their COVID-19 information.

This age group are all across social media with 98 per cent using it daily and 57 per cent using it 10 times a day.

But they get COVID-19 news from traditional media (77 per cent) and broadcasters in particular (71 per cent).

BBC TV (47 per cent) BBC online (36 per cent) officials (32 per cent) Facebook (28 per cent) Instagram (27 per cent) more than friends and family (34 per cent), newspapers (23 per cent), YouTube (22 per cent) and Snapchat (12 per cent).

25 to 34

Like their younger peers, traditional media is where this group get their pandemic alerts.

Traditional media (75 per cent) leads the table with broadcasters (63 per cent) the largest sub-group BBC TV (37 per cent).

However, this age group is the biggest vaccine sceptics with 12 per cent not wanting the vaccine as well as the biggest user of Facebook for pandemic info (30 per cent).

35 to 44

Traditional media is used to get COVID-19 info by 84 per cent of this age group.

BBC TV (49 per cent) is the highest sub-group with 32 percent for BBC online with newspapers on 31 per cent.

45 to 54

Broadcasters (81 per cent) are the most popular route BBC TV (51 per cent) family and friends (29 per cent) newspapers (26 per cent).

55 to 64

Traditional media is consumed by 90 per cent with broadcasters on 84 per cent.

65 plus

This group are the happiest to be vaccinated – 63 per cent – and traditional media dominates.

FUTURE COMMS: If Facebook’s algorithm will reward inspirational posts what does that look like?

We know that in a change to the Facebook algorithm that ‘inspirational’ posts will be rewarded.

But what exactly will that look like?

Until it lands, we won’t be entirely sure but I’ve got to thinking about what they could posssibly look like.

But what we do know is that Facebook will add a pop-up to ask if you feel this post inspires you. Those that do will be rewarded with more views.

Okay in theory but what will that look like?

I’m going to take a punt and say that dry public sector updates about committee meetings is nobody’s idea of ‘inspirational.’

But aside from that here’s a quick look at things that may cut the mustard and those that may not.

Remember, this is speculation but if you look after a Facebook page and you want people to see your content you are going to have to try that bit harder.

Three ways to beat Facebook

Of course, one way to reach an audience is to boost posts. But if you’ve not got a golden credit card that’s tricky. Posting to your page then cross-posting to Facebook flavour-of-the-month groups is another. A third is to create the best content you can. You’ll get organic reach.

Besides, better content will work better as a boosted post and in groups.

Be inspirational

1. The full on inspirational quote post

Here you go.

‘Climb success mountain.’

There are pages that specialise in the inspirational saying. Surely, they’ll get rewarded? This approach is certainly worth trying. But I can’t help but thinking this is too close to the kind of clickbait that Facebook shed itself of in 2018.

Also, the NHS Trust trying to reverse out of a local problem by inviting people to ‘grow strong towards the sun’ is asking for trouble. But text to re-inforce an inspirational story may be worth taking a look at.

Inspirational rating: between 3 and 8.

2. The inspirational TV story with real people post

St Georges NHS Trust have played a staring role on a TV show and of course they’re making the most of that online. It’s pure cute with a bit of drama thrown in with subtitles too.

While this is likely to lead the field not everyone has a TV production company and babies to call upon.

Inspirational rating: 9

3. The inspirational story with real people

Closer to home, this awards for young people round-up is excellent.

Young people from the area have friends and family on Facebook who are poised to share the heck out of the post. If anything, I’d be tempted to post them one at a time as part of a series to get maximum inspire.

Inspirational rating: 8

4. The inspirational call to action video

Everyone remembers the London 2012 games makers those volunteers who helped make the event a success.

Birmingham is playing host to the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and are looking to repeat the trick recruiting volunteers.

This video asks you to do a great thing.

Inspirational rating: 8

5. The remembering an inspiring figure post

When Captain Tom Moore died there was a real feeling of loss and a life well lived.

This 100-year-old fundraiser raised millions of pounds for NHS charities and inspired Britain in the first lockdown.

The England and Wales Cricket Board was amongst many to tap into this well of respect when he passed away.

Inspirational rating: 6

6. The good news at a time of unhappiness post

Here’s one from UK Government.

This tells the ‘herculean’ story of delivering vaccine to the British Overseas Territory of Pitcairn.

This remnant of Empire is 18 square miles of land to the west of New Zealand where less than 50 people live. This post is a straight link to The Sun newspaper who have covered the account of the three week trip.

While on the face of it iut is inspirational, if you look closely at the comments you’ll see disgruntled British people who have moved abroad complain that they haven’t had vaccine from Britain. So, a good tale it may be but it won’t deflect people who have a complaint.

Inspirational score: 6.5

7. The not very inspiring update post

I’ll be honest, I’ve picked this to show you because Redlands Council are a very long away away.

It’s a message to say that the public can return to council meetings. I’m sure they have far better content and I’m just as sure that this is a box-ticking exercise.

Be honest, how much of your Facebook page is filled with this kind of worthiness?

Inspiring?

Not really.

Inspirational rating: 2

Conclusions

There will be changes and if you are a Facebook admin you will need to be more careful about what you post.

Posting stuff just for the sake of it has never worked and I’m going to suggest that this is an opportunity to reboot your content policy.

It also points in the direction that fewer more quality posts is the way forward.

It would also suggest that real people doing extraordinary things are the way forward. The good news is that all organisations have these people and have them as residents, members or customers.

Those in the team who can extract and tell stories from people being well placed. The former journalist if they are sharp would be excellent at this.

GUEST POST: What I learned making a podcast series in the NHS

Podcasts are a popular medium to reach people. In this NHS example, Eliza Burke talks about what she has learned from launching Northumbria innovative healthcare’s podcast series.

The why

As a communications team, we wanted another way to engage with our audience that wasn’t necessarily one of the same old traditional methods.

It took us a while to get the podcasts off of the ground due to the pandemic with social distancing guidelines and the pressures staff were under making it really difficult.

Now that the measures are easing and the COVID cases are declining, we felt more comfortable making a start.

With the past year being incredibly challenging for our NHS staff we wanted to know how exactly it’s impacted them.

We’re currently running the Inside Northumbria – COVID Reflection podcast series to showcase our brilliant people and their incredible resilience.

I’ll be chatting to a number of our different teams, ranging from clinical, to office based, to those who are sometimes behind the scenes.

We already produce an Inside Northumbria blog where more than 60 staff have shared their own stories in a really human way which and this has proved hugely popular.

Challenges

Coronavirus has been the main challenge in producing podcasts during the last year.

Even now we are still facing the difficulty of minimising the number of guests featuring in the episodes, as well making sure we maintain social distancing and mask wearing guidelines. But with this happening for over a year now, everyone understands the importance of this.

What I thought was going to be another challenge was encouraging our staff to get involved in the podcasts, but so far, we’ve had a number of willing volunteers. Some staff members have even been in touch in the hopes that they can be involved with creating their own podcast series. An amazing response that I never expected.

The thing I enjoyed most about producing these podcasts is getting to meet and hear the stories of our fantastic NHS staff. Not only do I learn from them, but I get to understand them and their role as well as making new contacts within the organisation.

What I learned

From producing and hosting podcasts I’ve become much more confident within myself. Speaking publicly has never been a skill of mine, and I was cautious as I had to bounce off our guest speaker to ask further questions. But I changed my mindset and saw it as a casual chat and that really helped me to speak authentically and produce a good podcast.

Advice to others

The best advice I can give is don’t overthink it. The equipment can look frightening and the concept of talking into a microphone is nerve-wracking but it’s all fine. It’s much simpler than you’d think and can be fun and interesting. I’d recommend anyone to have a go.

Eliza Burke is a 22-year-old social media and digital assistant in the communications team at Northumbria Healthcare.

GUEST POST: The first man who had the idea to use the internet in local government

Once, there was no internet and no web communications. Andy Mabbett remembers the day when he suggested maybe the sector to use it. It’s a snapshot in history.

Twenty-five years ago on May 14 1996, I gave a talk at the Society of Public Information Networks’ conference, on ‘The Internet as a marketing tool for local authorities’ – because back then, having a website was a novel thing and most people, at least in local government didn’t know why they’d want one, nor how to do it.

Despite the title of the talk’s focus on ‘Marketing’, I also spoke about online service delivery: you could use the site to report faulty streetlights or potholes. This was long before the excellent FixMyStreet – I wonder if we inspired them?

Andy Mabbett Economic Development Officer Birmingham City Council.

Andy is Manager, ASSIST Project with Birmingham City Council’s
Economic Development Department, involved in a number of interrelated
Telematics development projects. These include Training For
Teleworkers, Domestic Interactive Television, support for SMEs and,
chiefly, ASSIST, Birmingham’s Presence on the WWW. The presentation
will include an online demonstration of ASSIST
.

Doing that was so novel that it attracted coverage in the national press. In the early days of that particular feature, until the highways’ team had their request for email access accepted, I recall printing out reports and popping them into the internal post.

We didn’t even have a CMS to begin with. The site was hosted by Bob Hendley and his able team in the Computer Studies department at the University of Birmingham. I would take them council leaflets to be scanned and transcribed into HTML!

We launched the site in late summer 1994. More recently, I was contacted by a historian who assured me that he could find no earlier example of a local council having a website. Globally.

I recall that we had colleagues from councils in Liverpool, Gloucester and elsewhere, who made the physical journey to Birmingham to ask us about how we ran the site and to decide whether they should do something similar.

We had great fun, and a free hand to try out new things – some of which are now commonplace, and some best not mentioned. Modern website management is very different; we shall not see days like those again.

Andy Mabbett is a Wikimedian in residence and freelance Wikimedian.

Picture credits: computer Gordon Brandly / Flickr.

COVID COMMS #43: What 12-months of attitudes polling during the pandemic show

Results of a year of polling globally on COVID-19 has been published and it deserves to be looked at.

In the UK, it seems we are becoming more trusting of UK government and the vaccine.

We also are fine working from home while a minority struggle to do so, according to the YouGov/Imperial College data.

While the study is global, the data is published for the UK.

Findings

We are hand washers. 97 per cent of people are doing that to stop the spread.

We’re not that happy at using face masks. Almost 40 per cent have reported difficulty using them. Eighty per cent regularly wear a mask while 16 per cent never do – the 4th highest rate in the q14 countries surveyed.

We work from home. A total of 69 per cent have avoided going out to work while 21 per cent never have.

We avoid going out. Those avoiding going out are at 81 per cent.

We find it easy and are willing to self isolate. 73 per cent say it would be no problem while 19 per cent say it would be a problem. Overall, 97 per cent are happy to self-isolate.

We think Government is improving. Those who think the UK administration have done well have moved over 12-months from 36 per cent to 45 per cent. Those who think its done badly have moved from 59 to 49 per cent.

We have confidence in the NHS. More than 80 per cent back the health service a figure hardly changed over 12-months. The 15 per cent that don’t haven’t changed their minds in the period.

We are in favour of COVID-19 vaccines. 67 per cent are in favour in April 2021 over the 24 per cent who aren’t.

Fears over vaccine side effects have been calmed. In April, the figure had almost halved to 27 per cent. 83 per cent trust the vaccine while 17 per cent don’t.

COVID COMMS #42: In May, generic national messages aren’t cutting through on Facebook

We’re at a funny stage of the pandemic.

Today is May 17 2021, and pubs in England are re-opening their indoor premises to customers who previously had to shiver outside in beer gardens.

Elsewhere, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland are travelling at a different pace but the mood music is we’re over the worst.

The dark cloud on the horizon is the India variant where 250,000 have died of COVID-19 and forecasts say a million is in sight before its over.

In the UK, the Indian variant is troubling public health people.

So, how is the latest pandemic chapter playing out on Facebook?

I had a look.

People in Facebook groups have stopped talking about COVID

I looked at 25 Facebook groups across the Black Country on Sunday May 16 to see how much COVID-19 content there was.

I also mapped the four Black Country council’s Facebook pages and the four NHS Trusts in the region.

Just 2.4 per cent of Facebook group conversations were about COVID-19. This includes Brierley Hill and Halesowen which has an outbreak of Indian variant.

It’s not there.

Content in Facebook groups about COVID-19

In short, people in groups are disinterested and talking about other things.

Hey, its been 12-months and we’re all bored of it, right?

Over on pages, the COVID public sector content isn’t cutting through

On public sector pages, artwork carrying central and local messages simply aren’t landing.

Even without seeing each posts’ insights its clear that nobody is sharing them.

I’ve a lot of time for public sector comms people these past 12-months. Barely able to look up from their kitchen table work stations they are time poor and tired.

But its important to be clear that the content being posted is ticking a box but not much more.

It appears the question is not to ask how many people have seen it let alone what they have done as a result of it.

In the snapshot survey of public sector pages, 23.7 per cent of content was COVID-19 related.

Content in public sector pages featuring COVID-19 on NHS and council pages

The content is certainly there.

The problem is it’s just not getting shared.

Of the analysis of four councils and four NHS Trusts, the median number of shares per post was just two.

Twenty of the 80 posts were pandemic-related. Seven were national government or NHS while eight were locally made. The majority was a text called to action on image.

The data shows its not being shared.

Public sector COVID-19 content with shares per post

One piece of content that did connect was Dudley Council’s warning of the Indian variant in Brierley Hill which received 81 shares. It highlighted a local matter in two places in the borough. It did not have high production values but that doesn’t matter if the message is important.

Conclusions

Message fatigue and pandemic weariness means COVID-19 content is largely not cutting through.

I absolutely don’t blame individual comms people for this. Overworked, under paid and often sworn at online daily they are just trying to get through the day.

This describes the problem but there are clues for a solution.

Firstly, generic national messages don’t work. Twelve months into the pandemic, its time to retire this routine generic content. Like a man on a bus with his face mask half off it’s more harm than good.

The only content that does cut through is localised warnings for named areas and human stories which also carry a message.

When I’ve blogged before, locally-made content worked best as does content with real people.

For example, Telford & Wrekin Council’s story of Sharn the coronavirus hospital survivor led to 3,400 shares, St Helen’s Council’s 340 shares of the coronavirus case study and 800 shares for Sandwell and West Birmingham NHS Trust’s doctors fronting their warning video.

Then theres chef Marcus Warning’s reminder to follow the rules with 500,000 views on the St George’s NHS Foundation Trust Facebook page.

The content that works has people in it or at the very least has local areas listed.

This leads to a conclusion of less is more.

People stories and video work.

So do local messages with local place names.

This means concentrating efforts on better made efforts that will take more time to create but are more effective.

Methodology

Facebook pages included in the snapshot were Dudley Group NHS Foundation Trust, Dudley Council, Sandwell Council, Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust, Wolverhampton Council, Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust, Walsall Council and Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust.

Facebook groups in the Black Country included in the study were in Dudley borough, Halesowen Times Take Two, Safe at Home Quarry Bank, Spotted Dudley, I’m From Dudley and Bromley / Pensnett and Brierley Hill Local Issues.

In Wolverhampton, Finchfield, Merry Hill, Penn, Castle Croft Community group, WV11 – Ashmore Park, Wolverhampton COVID-19 Mutual Aid, Bushbury Fordhouses and Oxley Neighbourhood Watch.

In Walsall, Brownhills Bob, Walsall Wood Community Group, Rushall Now, Walsall Chit Chat and Natter and Walsall For All.

In Sandwell, The Oldbury Page, West Bromwich Updates, Roeley Rergis Page, Blackheath / Rowley Regis Page, Spotted Tipton and Dudley Port and We Are Smethwick.

The first 25 posts in each Facebook group as served by the algorithm were assessed along with the previous 10 of page posts.

THAT’S ENOUGH: Five steps you need to know about complaining about a news story

I was a journalist for 12 years and worked in and around a council press office for another eight years.

It’s become clear to me that media relations remains an important part of the comms team’s armoury. Print may have fallen but in many areas reader numbers remain buoyant online.

It’s not uncommon to have potentially 70 per cent of the population in an area seeing content from a newspaper at least once in the past week.

Local news stories are all over social media, for example. Pop into a Facebook group and its never long before you see a link.

Strategically, its clear that the skills that used to be common in comms teams have dissipated.

Confidence in dealing with the media is at a low ebb which is why I’ve launched a workshop that refines the idea of media relations.

In this post, here’s a few steps in making a complaint.

What kind of relationship do you want?

Somewhere on YouTube there’s a clip of Peter Mandelson bollocking a reporter for not running a story in the way that he wants. Spin was in the ascendancy and acceptable reporting was rewarded with access. Of course it still goes on but for the benefit of this I’m not going near it.

How and if you make a complaint is dictated by what kind of relationship you want with the reporter and the news outlet.

Is it going to be a long running relationship? Or is this the only time you’ll speak to them? What do you want to achieve by complaining?

Certainly, I spent a lot of time in my career listening to aggrieved people and explaining to them that they didn’t really have a leg to stand on and no, I wouldn’t be reporting that reporter to the now defunct Press Complaints Commission for reporting what they said.

However, I spent a lot of time pulling up reporters who were trying to cut corners and not do their job at my organisation’s expense.

EXCLUSIVE: Reporters don’t like complaints

Here’s a secret. When I was a journalist, despite the united front appearance, I needed a complaint like a hole in the head.

At best, it was a ball ache and at worst a complaint potentially career ending. A reporter needs to go back over the ground, write a briefing note, speak to news editors or editors some of them may hate their guts.

So, how to go about it?

Step one: facts

Get your facts right.

Go over the ground paragraph by paragraph and line by line with the person in your organisation who is most irritated by the content.

Factual inaccuracies are there to be challenged.

Someone angry that the reporter is covering an agenda without their permission is going up the wrong tree.

Does the piece tell the whole story?

Is there even a benefit for telling the whole story?

Step two: have a conversation

Now you’ve got your facts marshalled, you can have a conversation with the reporter in question.

Set out why you are cheesed off and importantly get a sense of what you’d like to happen as a result.

Be wary of the ‘X hits back at claims that Y’ follow-up as you are at risk of re-inforcing the inaccuracy.

You can do this over the phone best, in my experience.

If step two doesn’t work, its time to think of step three.

Step three: Go public

If the reporter is unrepentant, its time to be pro-active.

The BBC Press Office are past masters at this.

It’s a chance to point out publicly what is wrong and why it is wrong.

Bear in mind that this should not be the first step to take. It’s you being hard but firm and drawing a line in the sand over what is acceptable and what is not.

It’s down to you when to deploy it but it absolutely should be part of your armoury.

Handled wall his shouldn’t be the end of the relationship.

I once used this over a story claiming a swimming pool had put dark tint over the window of a swimming pool because Muslims had complained on religious grounds.

The story attracted right wing extremists and needed to be challenged but the reporter refused to amend his story so we put out the facts on Twitter and asked people to decide for themselves what the truth was.

It didn’t end well for the newspaper, with a mild pile-on on the newspaper.

The next piece they carried on the subject was balanced.

I rest my case.

Step four: the almost nuclear option

If the first three steps aren’t working then its time for step four. The official complaint to the regulatory body.

There’s two routes to take. IPSO which regulates largely regional media. Then there’s IMPRESS which regulates largely hyperlocal media and a few titles. The BBC have their own complaints process as do many other other national titles. Reach has an editor’s code of practice which it invites people to measure their reporting against.

This is going to take time and resources and represents a break in a relationship.

Step five: the nuclear option

Law.

This is the final step to take and not one to take lightly. Elton John did it with The Sun. Meghan Markle did it with the Daily Mail. It’s going to be very expensive to even consider down this path and the liklihood is you may have a lengthy career without ever darkening a media lawyer’s door.

If you feel as though you may need to my advice is to engage the services of media law expert David Banks. He is a former editor of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and is a media law expert. He’s going to know more on the subject than your legal team.

In conclusion

Journalists and press officers have never got along swimmingly all the time. There’s always been friction. You can have a good relationship but sometimes you aren’t going to see eye to eye.

Reporters are there to do a job to try and report what they see as a story and sometimes you’ll have to politely explain that to people in the organisation.

The job of media relations is to represent the interests of the organisation.

If you have are going to have a relationship with journalists you’ll need to know the basics of how and when to make your views known.

You can find out more about the ESSENTIAL MEDIA RELATIONS workshop here.

COVIDCOMMS #41: History tells us how we’ll look back at #covid19 and its not what you expect

We’ve reached a stage of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK where restrictions are easing and we’re starting to look to the future.

In a few days, we’ll be able to book a table inside in a pub and order food. For the past six months we’ve not been able to. More than half the country have had a jab. We’ll also be able to hug people.

There may well be more acts in the play to follow but we have a sense of the burden lifting.

This may be too early, but how will we look back at things?

History gives us a blueprint and what it says will surprise people right now.

The excellent BBC podcast Pandemic 1918 tells the story of the Spanish Flu and how the country reacted. The country had not long finished World War One when this pandemic struck.

War claimed 10 million lives while the new virulent outbreak of flu claimed up to ten times as many people.

Communities won’t memorialise the dead

Travel the length of Britain and you’ll see war memorials to the fallen but across the country there isn’t a single statue, roll of honour or plaque for the victims of the Spanish Flu.

Historian and author Catherine Arnold in the sums up why in the BBC podcast:

“They call the Spanish Flu the ‘forgotten pandemic’. I think its because people chose to forget. Spanish Flu was so bloody awful. People’s response was that ‘we’ve got through four years of war and now this?’

“And the symptoms were disgusting. War deaths are heroic. We memorialise them but we don’t have the time or space to memorialize deaths from flu.”

Communities will feel betrayed

After the first world war, gradually as time went on a feeling of bitterness spread in the British countryside. Rural communities were the ones who gave up men and horses and the warm promises of running water and better conditions never happened.

The phrase that emerged in the countryside in the thirties was ‘The Great Betrayal.’

You don’t have to look far in the UK to find who the betrayed communities may be. The NHS have sacrificed their health, their lives in some cases and their mental health and have been rewarded with a real time pay cut.

In 2021, we are sat on a mental health timebomb. Will we do everything we can for them? I’m not so sure. We haven’t served mental health well in the years before the pandemic. Now the Treasury has less money the chances of a largesse on a hidden illness is hard to imagine.

There will be a long shadow of ill health

The Spanish Flu pandemic, left a trail of illness that spanned decades. In the words of the time, there was ‘melancholy’ that overshadowed the country in the decade that followed.

Longer than that was the heart disease, lung disease and Parkinson’s that had a root amongst flu survivors.

We don’t know what the impact of COVID-19 will be.

In conclusion

History says pandemics have a massive impact and part of the recovery from that impact is not looking backwards but looking to the future.

If that means we recover, who are we to argue?

For a communicator, this means that the future can be uncertain. We’ll have to adapt to the reality that we find and that’s what many have done over the past 12-months.

It also means that COVID-19 will last far longer than the point where we can go and sit in a pub in the warm.

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