GUEST POST: Learning how to better communicate with diverse communities during COVID-19

Each phase of the pandemic has unwrapped new challenges. Now we have a vaccine, why aren’t people coming forward to take it? Polly Cziok talks about the groundbreaking work the London Borough of Hackney have been involved with to map their diverse communities, listen to them, create bespoke content for them and then refine it. People want to be informed not manipulated. It’s an approach that is starting to work.

Polly will talk more about Hackney’s approach in a Zoom chat with members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group at 1pm on Thursday February 25. Members can sign-up here.

A year ago as Covid-19 crashed into our lives, the comms directive from central to local government was very clear.  Our job was to use our channels to put out the messages that they would provide. Any talk of local nuance or developing local or regional campaigns was met with suspicion, and to a certain extent that was understandable.  After all, the first rule of emergency comms is to control the message tightly. Many of us have worked on major incidents in our careers, and the command and control system of comms is vital, as we seek to forge order out of chaos.  

However, in recent years – and nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than in the dreadful aftermath of the Grenfell fire – the importance of rapid community engagement, of listening to people affected by crisis, and acting on that insight, has become more widely understood.  And Covid isn’t an ‘incident’ in the usual sense, it’s an epoch-making public health crisis that has affected every human being on the planet.  

In the midst of this global crisis, our lives have become intensely local, for many of us our existence shrunk down to our homes, the local park, and the corner shop.  And the recognition of the importance of local comms solutions, based on insight, and tailored to local communities has grown throughout. When we look at the huge disparities in vaccine take up, across ethnic groups and different areas of the UK, it is clear that national ‘one size fits all’ messaging really isn’t working for everyone. 

Amongst most people, vaccine hesitancy is just that.  People feel nervous, unsure, and indeed hesitant.  None of our residents talked about 5G…

Polly Cziok, London Borough of Hackney

This is dangerous stuff in the middle of a manufactured, post-Brexit, culture war.  Vaccine hesitancy amongst so-called ‘BAME’ communities (a highly problematic phrase in itself, but especially in the hands of the Daily Mail), is very real, especially amongst Black and South Asian populations.  This needs to be tackled urgently to avoid deepening the health inequalities that Covid has both exposed and exacerbated.  But it needs to be done sensitively, and without stigmatising communities.  And the key to that is insight and proper, active listening.  

We’ve carried out an extensive vaccine insight programme in Hackney, and the learning has shaped all our communications. Amongst most people, vaccine hesitancy is just that.  People feel nervous, unsure, and indeed hesitant.  None of our residents talked about 5G, microchips, nano-technology, Bill Gates, or aliens.  Those who had fears talked about the speed of the vaccine development, potential side effects, worries about the 12 week gap, about how rushed the whole thing seemed to them, how it would react with existing conditions, wanting to wait and see.  Some talked about experiences of medical racism, and lack of trust in government messaging.

In our focus groups we tested a range of messages, developed with our in-house behavioral science specialists, ranging from the fear inducing (‘you will be at risk if you don’t get vaccinated’) to the emotive (‘you could hug your family again’).  We tested the social norming messages (‘everyone else is doing it!’).  We showed a range of sample campaign posters.  The feedback was very clear.  People do not want to feel that they are being persuaded or manipulated. They want to feel informed.  They want their questions answered.They want clear facts from trusted messengers so that they can make their own decisions.  And who are those trusted messengers?  Well, guess what? They’re not social media influencers, celebrities or (dare I say it?) politicians.  They’re not even faith leaders or community peers – although those can be helpful advocates.  The most trusted messengers on vaccination are doctors, nurses, and public health professionals.  Go figure.  

As the vaccine is rolled out across the age groups, this job is going to get tougher.  Our research, and that carried out at a London level, shows that younger age groups are more likely to distrust the vaccine.  That’s why, as part of Keep London Safe (the London boroughs joint Covid comms effort), science teachers in Hackney have developed a set of teaching resources for every school in London (and anywhere else that wants to use it) to make sure young people are informed and can reassure their elders.  We know that people who get their news from social media are more likely to be vaccine sceptics. We know from early insight with our Charedi Jewish community that older people have been keen to take it up, but that some younger people, especially women, have been affected by disinformation about the jab causing infertility.  

So we keep listening, we keep learning, we keep tweaking our messages, creating new content, discovering new channels.  We’ve created an insight toolkit for London boroughs, to help people structure polling, focus groups and message testing.  Anyone is welcome to use it, but in the spirit of sharing, if you do, please share the insight that you gain so we can add it to our collective knowledge.   

I’m really proud of the role we are playing in this work, of my Hackney team (special shout out to Florence Obinna and David Besbrode, our mighty insight and data analysis duo), our public health colleagues, our community partners, and of everyone in local government who is developing and sharing such amazing best practice.   I hope that one of the legacies of Covid – as we move together to tackle some of the factors behind health inequality in the UK – is that local insight will be a key driver, and not an afterthought.

Resources

The Hackney Council web resource for schools on COVID-19 vaccine resources aimed at schools.

Polly Cziok is Strategic Director, Engagement, Culture, and Organisational Development at London Borough of Hackney.

Picture credit: istock.

SURVEY NUMBERS: As the pandemic drags on public sector comms mental health is suffering

If you’re working in public sector communications seven months into the COVID-19 outbreak your mental health is suffering, a survey shows.

Almost seven in ten of government, fire, police, NHS and local government communicators say their mental health is worse now than before the pandemic struck.

The data from a survey of almost 300 communicators carried out in October and November 2020 show the long term effects of working under pressure is starting to tell.

However, almost eight out of 10 reported that they still feel as though they are working for the common good – an increase of three per cent compared to June 2020.

In truth, the results are alarming.

But the hidden downsides to the work are increasing. Feeling isolated are 47 per cent of respondants – up from 34 per cent in June.

In addition, 53 per cent said their physical health was worse compared to before the pandemic.

Feedback given anonymously in the survey is also disturbing.

“I do find that I feel anxious about work. I feel stressed constantly looking at everything as a task and feeling failure if not done quickly.”

“My line manager hardly checks in to see if I am ok, the workload has increased and I can’t see an end to it currently.”

“COVID has been my introduction to anxiety. And its getting worse as the months go on, and the professional pressure keeps rising.”

fig 1. How is your mental health compared to working before the pandemic?

Positives remain

However, data collected in October and November do point to a communicators believing in what they were doing. There has been a three per cent increase to 77 per cent of people who feel they are working for the common good.

In addition, 45 per cent of communicators felt as though they were working as part of a team.

So, what does this mean?

When I first surveyed public sector communicators in June it was as a one-off but this has now developed into a tracker survey to plot the progress as the panedmic goes on.

In truth, the results are alarming.

On the surface, people often get through their day and their tasks but this is coming at a price.

I’m no expert, but if you are feeling stressed then ask for help.

If you are a manager, a head of communications or a director of communications this needs to be something you look at. Your staff believe in what they are doing but they are suffering.

If you’re public sector do me a favour. The NHS has a good web page with resources here. Take a look and do something. You are not alone. The survey shows this and the chances are there are people in your team feeling the same.

You could also contact Samaritanscall: 116 123 or email: jo@samaritans.org if you need someone to talk to.

If you are public sector and want to take part in the January iteration of the survey click here.

GUEST POST: How and why the ‘Don’t be a Dick’ public health campaign was created

It’s always good to hear the story behind amazing campaigns. As public health fight tooth and nail to get their message across the more direct route was adopted by Lincolnshire Resilience Forum. SHAUN GIBBONS communications manager of South Holland District Council explains how it emerged.

Hello, how are you?
Let’s be honest: framing a public health messaging campaign around calling someone out for acting a dick comes with a fair amount of risk. Calculated risk… but risk, nevertheless.

In these heightened, sensitive ‘age of panic’ times the ability for people to find offence in anything that they’ve seen or read online is a headache for anyone working in communications.

This becomes even more relevant when communicators are searching for new ways to say the same thing. Just how many ways are there to say, “Stay at home”, “Wash your hands”? (It must be noted here that UK Government really need to develop the “how” and “when” messaging and consider employing more of the “why” …something they’ve been criticised for in the past).

It’s aimed at those younger, thumb-activated and more risk-relaxed individuals

who have turned away from the stayed messaging that often gets little online traction.


So why the dick?

Cutting through the social media noise and the ‘vanilla’ messaging (a colleague’s phrase, not mine) was Dick’s primary objective. And with nearly half a million views in the first few days of the campaign, this spiky little individual did just that.

Remember the why? Well, we wanted to root this campaign in a particular (give it some bollocks, you might say). Dick represents, according to a UK Government’s Behavioural Insights Team survey, 8 per cent of people who are thought to be responsible for 60 per cent of the total transmission risk.

Put bluntly, Dick is a dick and his actions – and the inherent risks to everyone associated with him – need to be called out. And I believe that was done with a fair dose of humour which seemed to be appreciated by the vast majority who’ve shared and commenting on the campaign’s first
introductory post. Some are suggesting Channel 4’s The Last Leg parodied the campaign on its show last night.


Will this campaign change Dick’s behaviours?

Maybe, maybe not. Is Dick aware that his actions have consequences? Almost certainly. But does Dick know to what extent? I don’t think so, no. And if this campaign does nothing else it highlights the butterfly effect that even the smallest of behaviours can have a large affect.
But that’s enough about Dick.

What about Tom and Harriet?

These two heart-warming individuals represent those who continue to play their part in keeping the virus under control. These two need a voice and need to be championed for the sacrifices they’ve made. These are the majority who quietly go about their lives making a positive contribution to their communities. We need to hear more about the Tom and Harriet’s of this world. (Again, it’s worth noting that behavioural messaging lands much better when they are framed in a more positive sense rather than negative. Again, something the UK Government has been criticised for).

How did you manage to get this signed off?

Working in a multi-agency organisation with a number of instinctively command and control structures is often difficult and demanding, I won’t lie. As is the political dimension. But there’s three reasons why this campaign got off the ground.


Number 1: having a flexible communications strategy that said to partners: “Hey, if you don’t want to share our content, then that’s cool. We’re down with that. We understand you have your parameters and own audiences to consider. It’s all gravy.” All good content will stand on its own two feet.

Number 2: Gaining the trust of your team and those around you and being able to influence those you need to quickly, quietly and efficiently was key. I work with a fantastic group of individuals who know I’ve got their back and I know they’ve got mine. So, if you’re going to tiptoe around a minefield be sure-footed and know where the bombs are buried.

Number 3: Trust your own instincts and hold the line. As I said earlier, it was a calculated risk. But my instincts told me there was a very good chance this would land well with the audience it was intended for. Yes, of course there was pressure for me to take it down and stop the campaign – and I respect those individuals and the organisations they represent who asked for that to happen. But I kept telling colleagues hold the line and it worked out.

So what’s next?

Let’s face it: this campaign won’t appeal to every Tom, Dick and Harry…the curtain twitchers from number 7 down the road probably WILL find it either offensive or downmarket. But this campaign isn’t aimed at those. It’s aimed at those younger, thumb-activated and more risk-relaxed individuals
who have turned away from the stayed messaging that often gets little online traction.


Stay safe and thanks for reading.

Shaun Gibbons is communications manager at South Holland District Council.

COVID COMMS #15: What local local lockdown content looks like

There’s now a short window to get your act together if you’re a public sector communicator.

Week 10 of the lockdown and restrictions are being eased across the UK but at a different pace.

In England, there is the prospect of a local lockdown in areas where the infection rate spikes. That can be a school, a workplace or an estate or town.

So how to communicate it?

Why the need to create local lockdown messages?

It all points to the need to have a comms plan with full collateral ready and good to go within days.

Last week I blogged on why this was needed. In summary, data suggests the Cummings effect has had a measurable effect on trust and getting a message across. But communities are hugely trusted. It points to the tactical need to create your own stuff.

But from a practical need you’ll need to create your own stuff, too. Whereas previously people could troop to their national public health website and download the content that’s probably not going to be an effective option.

Government designers won’t be busting a gut to create content for any lockdown for say, on Walton High School in Stafford. Or Dorman Diesels in Stafford. Or the town of Stafford itself.

So, you need to crack on with your own content as part of a comms plan.

What does local look like?

Here’s a few examples of local messages that have caught my eye.

As with anything, don’t wait for best practice create your own.

#1: A SIMPLE LOCAL MESSAGE

Welsh Government have created something that could work as a broad approach for England. They’ve created a national message and content that can work on a very local level. Like here for Powys.

STRENGTH: It’s ready and good to go. It identifies with a local area.

DOWNSIDE: It serves Welsh needs but the approach would need to be more granular and re-designed for a more local lockdown. A template that comms people could adjust and deploy out-of-hours makes most sense.


#2 A SIMPLE BRANDED MESSAGE

Wigan have done great things over the past couple of years and I really like the way they’ve adapted national messages but made them their own.

STRENGTH: Adding the Wigan Council logo makes it clearly content endorsed by one authority and for one area.

WEAKNESS: While this is for the council, would council branding make it harder for other public sector organisations to share? No doubt they’ve tackled this in Wigan but a conversation with fellow ahead of a balloon going up may be helpful for you. Is there other branding that everyone can buy into without the need for logo soup?


#3 MAKE YOUR EXPERT A MEDIA STAR

Jason Leitch is National Clinical Director for Scottish Government. More than anyone I’ve seen he nails scientific rigour with clear explanation. Find your local version whether that’s NHS or Public Health and have them explain the thinking behind the local lockdown. Engage with the media as Jason does here. Answer questions. A Q&A in a Facebook group or on a newspaper’s page makes sense.

STRENGTH: The scientific advisor is more trusted right now than the politician so encourage them to deliver their advice.

WEAKNESS: There’s only so many hours in the day and some will be better at it than others.


#4: USE LOCAL IMAGES

I lived in the North East for three years as a student and so always missed the summer. The beaches in the region are fabulous and can attract thousands of visitors. This content takes local images with a local message.

STRENGTH: Local images with a slightly light hearted local message postcard-style. A lack of logo can be a strength.

WEAKNESS: While the approach hits the nail on the head for broad tourism messages it couldn’t be cut-and-pasted entirely into local lockdown warnings. But , I’m sure the originators of this know that. A lack of logo can be a weakness.


#5 USE LOCAL IMAGES AND A LOGO

Similar to North Tyneside, the postcard approach takes a gentle route to encourage people to keep away. But with added logo.

STRENGTH: As with the North Tyneside, a light hearted message delivers a balanced prod. I also like the fact they’ve re-purposed a creative commons image of Formby beach so they have a local view without cost.

WEAKNESS: Again, this can’t be cut and pasted onto a specific lockdown warning. But I’m sure they know that.


#6 USE LOCAL IMAGES AND MAKE IT FROM THE LRF

If council-branded comms may be a frustrating and needless obstacle to partners sharing then a joint approach can sidestep that. So, this example of Local Resilience Forum branding can avoid that.

STRENGTH: It has a Suffolk flavour from the text to the image which is a piece of public art in Ipswich. Using elements of the national message can be seen as positive. It comes from the LRF so NHS, council, police and others should buy into this.

WEAKNESS: The light-hearted approach won’t work for more serious matters but I’m sure they know this.


#7 LOCAL DOWNLOADABLE ASSETS

Of course, create a local message. But be mindful that you need to spread it locally, too. Luton Council have downloadable assets that is the starting point for sharing a message. Where communities have English as a second language this makes sense.

STRENGTH: Downloadable means that others can share the information for you. A poster can be a poster in the community without the need to print and deliver.

WEAKNESS: You still need to get the information in front of people so they can download it. There’s also a small risk of fake messages circulating.


#8 LOCAL VIDEO

Sharable content with recognisable local content and a local voiceover makes sense to get local information out. Rhondda Tynon Taf Council have made this strong video, for example. For a local lockdown, date stamping may be an idea.

STRENGTH: Sharable and local.

WEAKNESS: Can take hours to create something local and a lack of technical skills can be a barrier.


#9 POSTERS AND SIGNS

Sealing off a park as part of a local lockdown involves more than a chain and lock with a message online. There’s a need for posters and signs, too. Like this from Liverpool City Council.

STRENGTH: A local sign helps deliver a local message.

WEAKNESS: Can be torn down and vandalised easily.

Thanks to Adrian Osborne, Sally Clark, Carwyn Meredydd, James Moore, Rachael ill, Rachel Ridge, Elena Michelle Lloyd, Paula Elwood and Louise Powney.


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