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.

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