COVID COMMS #23: Early lessons for comms people from the Leicester lockdown

If you’ve just been tasked with communicating a local lockdown and wondering where to start don’t worry there are some good lessons from Leicester.

The East Midlands city was the first in the UK to see a spike and counter-measures introduced at the start of July.

Very swiftly the public sector in the county drew-up a plan of attack and started to communicate it.

Chris Kealey, head of comms at Leicestershire Police and Katie Pegg, media manager at Leicestershire County Council, took part in the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group Zoom chat to set out some of the lessons they learned to give you a starting point.

Both are keen to stress that this is not a definitive list as each city, town and community across the UK will have slightly different challenges. But they are right in saying this is a starting point.

They are also keen to make clear that there are many more partners involved. Especially Leicester City Council who have taken the brunt of media attention as well as partner organisations who have supported through the Local Resilience Forum.

Here’s a list of bulletpoints from the session.

Work as partners. In England, the Local Resilience Forum is a place where public sector bodies and others come together. Across the UK there are equivalents. Relationships built there in peacetime will more than pay dividends when the time comes.

Pace. Normally, a major incident will see a ‘golden hour’ that is critical for you to shape the response. In a local lockdown this is more like a ‘golden 24-hours’, Chris says. It will feel like slow-motion but you need to pace yourself and manage the flow of information.

Get a map and get it up. Katie was clear to point out that there was a need to clarify where the lockdown area covered. That makes sense. If you’re living on the edge of Leicester, for example, you’d like to know if you’re covered or not. It is the starting point.

Make your media priority local. The world’s media came knocking on the door. Police and County Council, and no doubt others involved, made local media a priority. Leicester Mercury and Leicestershire radio stations were top priority. They were serviced first. This makes sense. Leicester City Council bore the brunt. Police did this for the first 36-hours and while it was tough to hold it makes sense. As time went on they also serviced PA which in turn passed content through to the national media.

Start with your values in your response. If your values are to serve and protect then make that your start point. Chris described this as starting to build from the inside out. That makes sense.

Make public health the core message. It’s a pandemic. The health of the public trumps everything. It’s why there is a lockdown and by keeping that front and centre you keep clarity. In a game of scissors, paper, stone it wins everytime.

Use local voices from your organisation. This makes no end of sense. I loved the idea of Leicestershire using voices from the town starting with their staff in communicating the local lockdown message. I can see this way it’s the town’s lockdown rather than something impose from above.

Use local voices from across your community. Again brilliant. A GP or the Director of Public Health making a point was encouraged, recorded and repurposed. It can only re-inforce the local message.

Use local translators. Leicester is a very diverse city. Up to 12 different languages were used but sanity checking with local staff showed that there was a need for local translation services. Why? Because dialect matters and if people are from a particular community they will respond better to their own dialect.

Use local messengers. Do people know those spokespeople in the community? Are they trusted? Do they have credibility?

Target those most at risk. If you know your patch you’ll know as an organisation how to reach the right people.. So look to focus your messaging – and for the county, where there’s a partial lockdown, this is complex and nuanced. This is local not one size fits all.

The LRF can agree the broad approach and messages. Have something that everyone can sign-up to. Use that as a framework. Across partners meet virtually every day and several times a day if needed.

But leave space for local politics to play out. Communicators are advised to leave breathing space for politics to play out and if it happens that’s fine. We live in a democracy.

Be prepared to ebutt the same content over and over. In Leicester, footage of a cricket match circulated. It was broken up but claim and counter-claim kept surfacing. Be patient and be prepared to play whack-a-mole.

It’s a long haul so rotate staff. This, I think, is unexpectedly key. There is no sense everyone burning out. Days off should be encouraged.

Keep an action log. Make a note of what you do, when you do it and why you do it. This is brilliant advice. It helps build an audit trail and you will be asked to explain and justify certain decisions. That’s fine. If you have a record you can explain. In all likelihood if you don’t have this, they say, you’ll be put under extra pressure to explain your actions. It also helps you keep on top of things. Top advice.

Create low res short video with whatsapp in mind. This is a good tip. WhatsApp groups are widely used but by definition they are impossible to monitor. Misinformation and disinformation can pass through them unchecked. So, a low-res short video from someone in the community making a point iis a useful tool.

Be prepared to work closely with new colleagues at a national level. They will want to help you manage an outbreak – and they’ll have learned lots of lessons from other outbreaks.  Open your doors and work together.  

Social media isn’t always a barometer it’s social media. Because issue ‘X’ is making a lot of noise it doesn’t mean that this is playing big across your community. This is good advice for all sort of things.

A huge thanks to Katie Pegg and Chris Kealey for sparing the time to share their ground-breaking work.


COVID COMMS #22: What the Globalwebindex stats say how people are using media

Okay, because I’m a sucker for stats here’s some more.

July 2020’s GlobalWebIndex’s Coronavirus Reseasrch for July 2020 data on how people are spending their time during lockdown.

Here you go by demographic.

More time socialising with the family, watching video and creating video.

fig 1. How demographics are consuming media in July 2020 percentage increase (Globalwebindex, global stats, July 2020)

And also how UK adults are spending their time.

More time watching news, watching streaming services and time on messaging services.

fig 2. How UK adults are spending their time percentage increase (Globalwebindex, UK stats, July 2020)

All of the data points to the fact that the media landscape has been tossed up into the air and are settling in different ways.

How can this help public sector communicators?

Check what you are doing and don’t stand still.

Picture credit: Flickr / Documerica


JOB TIPS: Three things to do if you’re comms and PR and worried about redundancy

There’s growing uncertainty in post-lockdown Britain and comms and PR people are feeling vulnerable.

The shadow of the first wave of COVID-19 deaths recedes replaced by the fear of job losses.

If you’re feeling exposed and fear redundancy I know how that feels.

Back in the early 1990s two weeks into my working life that was me and it taught me three important things.

Back then, I was working on a newspaper as a dark room technician trying to pay off University debt while working out what I wanted to do with my life. Two weeks in, we were all called into a meeting to be told that the paper was being put up for sale and there may not be enough money to pay the wages.

That was compulsory redundancy.

Six years ago when I left to become freelance it was voluntary but the lessons I learned still applied.

The redundancy process is always painful but when properly applied is equitable. When badly applied it causes resentment and blows the organisation’s credibility.

Here’s what I learned.

There will be rumours. Stop listening to them.

“I’ve heard that X met Y and they say that Z is going to happen.”

From experience, you’ll hear all sorts. Almost all of it will be supposition, rumour and speculation. All of it becomes tiring.

I eventually made the conscious decision to stop listening for the good of my mental health.

Wait for official communication

This is the picture and it’ll happen by X.”

I found it far easier to ignore the rumour and wait for official communication and a chance to ask questions.

While you’re waiting…

Join a union

“They may tell you X but that’s wrong. Y is what they need to do and Z is the law to cite.”

It is so useful to have someone in your corner and who can spell out to you what the process is in law.

I’ve been a member of the National Union of Journalists for the past 25 years. They represent PR and communications. You can get more information here.

My Mum used to say that one door closes and another opens up. If you’re in the middle of the storm you won’t see this. I get that. This only comes with hindsight. It’s not a nice feeling to have your job under threat and I don’t dismiss that lightly but I hope one day you see a silver lining to it all.

Good luck.


COVID COMMS #21: People are sharing official messages less, so what can you do?

Fewer people are sharing COVID-19 safety messages and that’s a problem for public sector people.

According to Ofcom research, 25 per cent of people were sharing key messages at the start of the pandemic but 12 weeks in that figure has halved.

Anecdotally, there’s a range of reasons for this. Message fatigue. Lockdown fatigue. Falling trust in politicians. Debate over the messaging. Confusion. But why is less important than the ‘what next?’

That’s a real problem if you are a public sector communicator charged with reaching people.

If this whole episode has proved anything its that the communicator who churns the same stuff out without thinking has had their day.

So what to do?

Back when I was on newspapers in the late 90s the answer to falling circulation was to do more of the same. Only much more. That was the wrong answer then and its the wrong answer now.

Here’s five things you can do to better get the message through to people.

Educate the client. The landscape is changing rapidly. What worked five weeks ago let alone five years ago are two different things. Pay extra double close attention to research like Ofcom’s and educate the senior leadership team as to why you are doing what you do. It doesn’t have to be extensive. Just something that spells out why you are working how you’re working. This is so very important.

Create your own content. Data has suggested that people are getting fed-up with politicians and the Government. So, try making your own assets with local messages that mirror the national picture.

Take your own content to where the audience is. I know, I know. I’ve been banging on about this for a long time. Create content for Dudley and knock on the doors of Dudley Facebook groups. People are more likely to trust messages from people who look and sound like them.

Nurses and Doctors to the front. Trust in the NHS remains sky high. Nine out of 10 people trust medics. So have local medics fronting your content.

Advertise. If people won’t naturally share your content put some money behind it. That way it’ll reach people.

Work with your local news brand. Newsrooms are getting thinner at the time when people trust local news more. So, talk to them about what would work with them. A video? A Facebook Live with a public health officer? Have that conversation. It’s about reaching people.

Remember that your staff are your biggest assets. Remember that? So, use them. Have a network of people who are prepared to share your public health message. Connect them via email or Workplace or Yammer or whatever the best way to connect them is.

Pay really close attention to your own insights and data. What’s working locally? As people’s experiences change and alter your own insights will be a useful barometer over what is working. It’s less ‘is it visible?’ and far more ‘has anyone seen it and acted upon it?’ Box ticking presenteeism in your comms is of no use to anyone. Least of all now.


COVID COMMS #20: Liverpool City Council and their video response to football fans gathering at Pier Head

When Liverpool won the Premier League after a 30 year wait the red part were happy, the blue part were sad and public sector people held their breath.

In pre-COVID-19 days the win would have been greeted by a huge outpouring of emotion on the streets. Three quarters of a million supporters greeted the Reds’ European Cup win last year.

But with restrictions there was an anxiety that people would forget the public health advice.

Media reports and social media saw smaller gatherings at Anfield and elsewhere when Chelsea beat Manchester City 2-1 on the Thursday evening and gave the Reds and unassailable points total but it was to Pier Head that thousands turned to celebrate on Friday.

The afternoon saw the Pier Head turned into the site of an overly indulged festival with beer cans and other debris strewn.

Jennifer Bruce, Liverpool City Council’s video journalist, joined the weekly Zoom session of Public Sector Comms Headspace where she shared key learning.

I’ve blogged some of the key points with her permission.

While Liverpool FC’s title win was good for the city the Pier Head celebrations and their aftermath threatened to be deeply damaging. Celebrations for some supporters were also a public health nightmare in a pandemic. The council in its response was faced with a difficult challenge.

Jen shot footage of the celebrations from the city council’s offices in the Cunard Building. But when the celebrations started to get out of hand she retreated.

She then shot footage in the morning of the state of Pier Head to help explain the challenge the city council now faced. The fans’ litter made the city look a mess.

Look for the heroes. Jen shot footage of city council staff who were clearing up but also individual fans too who had come down to clear away the mess. They were the individual heroes and by telling their story she could tell the wider story. That’s such a brilliant piece of advice and chimes with the idea of looking for a human face.

By mid-morning the next day, Liverpool FC, the council and Merseyside Police released a joint statement condemning the behaviour at the Pier Head. The council speaking alone wouldn’t have cut through. All three together were needed and the statement text here was picked up by the regional and national media. The move served to help head off any future celebrations. The swiftness of the statement was as a result of good working relationships built-up over months.

There is a value to creating and posting content swiftly. Footage of the celebrations and the morning after were posted quickly. A long sign-off process would have hindered this.

Video worksThe footage was widely viewed on the council’s own social media assets. More than 2.5 million people saw the footage on Twitter and there were 23,000 engagements.

Team work works. It was heartening to hear how the Liverpool City Council team all rallied around to help.

Subtitles work. Even in a short turn-around the council put subtitles on their video to extend reach and make them more accessible.


COVID COMMS #19: Comms lessons from the Bournemouth beach major incident

When the history of the pandemic gets written there’s sure to be a paragraph on the hundreds of thousands of people who headed to Bournemouth to enjoy a sunny day by the sea.

Quite how the town coped is anyone’s guess but it was a real delight to hear Rachael Mills‘ account. The PR and communications manager at Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council gave some key learning from during a Zoom chat for members of the Public Sector Comms Headspace Facebook group.

It’s absolutely clear that Rachel and the rest of the council team and other public sector communicators in the town performed heroics with long hours over a number of days.

With her permission, here are some of the key points of learning.

As the numbers unfolded, one of the first steps was to turn social channels into broadcast channels. Normally, the council is responsive to question and comment but as the situation unfolded the queries were outstripping the ability to answer them.

As the media queries escalated a system of triage was introduced. As the world’s media rang, there wasn’t enough capacity to answer all of the questions and interview requests straight away. A triage system allowed the council to prioritise those media companies who were most important.

As the media queries flooded in, the one talking head needed extra help. The council Leader won credit for their handling of the situation and calmness in answering questions. They were backed-up on the ground with council staff who maintained social distancing but helped marshall the media requests.

A second briefed interviewee would have been handy. The main spokesperson played a blinder but the the organisation needs to have some capacity for someone else to take the slack.

Comms channels on the ground came into their own. Town centre LED messageboards became an important part of the equation as the council tried to communicate with people.

As a community that relies on tourism there were two audiences, visitors and residents. Channels to talk to residents were used to speak with residents. With residents there was an awful lot of myth-busting to be done. Channels for visitors delivered messages to visitors.

Good relationships built in peacetime can bear fruit in a time of crisis. The council had good links with the Local Resilience Forum and others that had been built up over months. When a real emergency happened those relationships were already in place.

For staffing, people were reserved to be the early shift and the late shift. There was no sense in letting everyone run at the issue at the same time. Some resource had to be kept back.

A thread of tweets from a personal account really cut through. Rachael used her own Twitter account to write the explanation of what the council had done and why. By using her account she put a human face on the issue.

Picture credit: Documerica / Flickr


COVID COMMS #18: Swift local Facebook content is the way to challenge misinformation

The battle against misinformation will be won and lost on Facebook.

It is the largest social media platform in the world with more than 49 million users in the UK. It is where people go for news, gossip, family pictures and to kill time.

This week the Daily Express ran a piece proclaiming the English towns on the verge of local lockdown. It led to a forest fire of rumour circulating with Facebook groups as the driver.

It’s easy for public sector communications people to feel swamped in the face of a sea of rumour and often hostile comment. It’s braver to stand up and challenge.

Take the case of Wigan in the North West of England.

Facebook case study: Wigan

Research I’ve carried out would suggest that every person who lives in Wigan would be a member of three Facebook groups.

I’ve chosen three Facebook groups to map the activity.

Three groups were chosen. I’m From Wigan with 41,000 members, WiganNow with 16,200 members and the Im From Wigan group (note no apostrophe) with 1,700 members.

Compared to the groups is Wigan Council’s page with 39,000 likes. in a borough of 318,000 which works out at a more than healthy 12 per cent. The health warning is of course that not all the council’s page audience will see an update.

Fig 1. Wigan Facebook audience: Three Facebook groups and the council page.

Visual content gets shared as misinformation

All had content shared from the Daily Express link.

Visual misinformation will travel as an image, a meme or a link. Sometimes it is deliberately created or shared knowing it is false. This is disinformation. At other times it is just plain incorrect which is misinformation. The Daily Express story.

A version of the Daily Express story was posted into the three Wigan groups:

Creating shareable Facebook content as rebuttal

Hats off Wigan Council. They created sharable content on Facebook with quotes from Kate Adern Wigan Council’s director of public health denying that Wigan was under imminent threat of lockdown.

The content had a human face.

The content had a clear message.

There was a clear call to action – a request for people to share it.

Within hours the content had found its way into the three Wigan Facebook groups and much further afield too. In little over 24-hours the rebuttal content had been shared a stocky 6,300 times.

The Wigan content was factual and relied on trust in experts.

The borough’s Public Health expert played the role of Chris Whitty and politicians were nowhere to be seen. This is exactly the right balance to take when talking to an audience. Politicians as a group are not as strongly trusted as medical experts sdo it was right to quote the expert.

Wigan Council’s content was shared in Wigan groups

Each of the three Wigan groups saw people sharing council content. Of the five pieces of council rebuttal in the three groups, three were screenshots of the message and two were links.

While a council can create accessible content on its page that can be read by screen readers the reality is what works across wider Facebook isn’t that. It’s images and memes.

That’s the content that the public sector should be creating.


COVID COMMS #17: If you’re trying to reach people with COVID-19 messages this research is absolutely essential

There’s this footage of a tsunami sweeping through a Japanese port that’s both horrifying and mundane.

It’s shot from a hill that looks down on the port. You see the wave slowly sweep in. At first what’s odd is the boats it brings with it. Great big trawlers as well as little pleasure boats crunching into seafront streets.

Then as the wave barrel;s through the town the wooden buildings begin to detach and move too swept bu the force of the slow-moving wave. What was a fixture is now moving in front of your eyes.

A similar effect is happening to the media landscape over three months of pandemic. People’s habits have changed and fluctuated.

Ofcom have published magnificent work that traces through the last three months. For public sector communicators this research is life saving in every sense of the word and I suggest you spend a bit of time with it. The most recent research dates from mid-June which makes it helpfully contemporary.

Key points from the Ofcom research

People are voracious in their consumption of COVID-19 news but how much depends on how old they are. Ofcom stats show 89 per cent access news daily. Over 55-year-olds consume the most at 94 per cent. The lowest being 16 to 24-year-olds with 84 per cent.

A big minority of people try to avoid the news. Just over 33 per cent will try and avoid the news. I’m sure some are successful but others I think rather like the episode of ‘The Likely Lads’ end up accidentally accessing it.

Traditional media is trusted most. Over 55s at 96 per cent trust traditional media brands. Aged 25 to 34-year-olds trust traditional media least at 51 per cent.

Social media is getting used for news less as the pandemic has worn on. At the start, 49 per cent used networking sites which has dropped to 38 per cent after three months.

But hang on, social media use for younger people tops any other channel. For 16 to 24-year-olds social is where they’ll go to find out COVID-19 information. In that demographic, 63 per cent will go to social media that’s three times as many as over 65s.

People are sharing fewer COVID-19 messages. At the start of the pandemic 25 per cent were sharing NHS, public health or government messages. This has halved in 12-weeks. This on the face of it is alarming to public sector communicators. But for me, this flags up the need to be more creative in your communications. The straight forward share of the Government poster feels as though its less effective. So think of ways to engage. Would the message be more effective coming directly from a nurse? The town Public health officer? A doctor?

People are getting COVID-19 information less from closed networks like Messenger and WhatsApp. This has fallen from 34 per cent at the start to 18 per cent after three months.

Misinformation is rife but falling. At the start, 46 per cent saw falsehoods but this has dropped to 30 per cent after 12-weeks.

Confusion is on the rise. As things get more complicated and there is more noise and more rules across four nations of the UK its understandable that confusion grows. At the start this was 17 per cent and this has risen to 24 per cent.

We trust the NHS even more now than we did at the start. At the beginning, 90 per cent trusted the NHS and now 91 per cent do. This is significant.

So, what does this all mean?

It means that what was working 12-weeks ago may not be working now. It also means that a one size fits all approach is doomed. We kind of know that but here is the evidence for you to argue against that.

It also means that traditional news brands such as the BBC or the local paper are places where people go for trusted information. Except if you are younger. You’ll go to social media.

Public sector communicators are really earning their money at the moment. But long hours doesn’t necessarily mean effective communications.

There is need for a constant re-boot and re-assessment of what is being done locally. These national figures should be a canary in the mine. Use them as an indicator of a broad direction of travel but test them locally too.

Try and measure how effective things are and adjust as you go. But what’s most powerful in the figures is that the point to the fact that different demographics use different channels.

Picture credit: US Government National Archives


FACEBOOK PROTEST: What that means for the public sector

Facebook has been in the news of late with big brands announcing they’re suspending advertising with the platform.

The reason for with holding ad money is a perception that Mark Zuckerburg’s company has been seen to be tardy in cracking down on hate speech.

Starbucks, Microsoft, Adidas and North Face are amongst a list of global names who have have suspend their corporate spend.

So what does this mean for public sector comms?

UK public sector spending on Facebook is so tiny the debate is partly academic. Even if it acted as a sector the noise it would make would be tiny

Should it suspend advertising on the platform?

That’s a question for comms people looking to give advice. I’ve not heard of anyone from the public sector suspend advertising on Facebook.

Sure, there’s things to be unhappy about as far as it comes to Facebook. Some commentators have warned of the platform’s corrosive effect on democracy.

But for me, this is audience driven. If the audience is there advertise to them. If they’ve gone elsewhere go elsewhere.

For the most part, the audience of corporate public sector pages are women aged 35 to 55. I’m not convinced they are backing the cancel Facebook campaign.

But the underlying lesson is that nothing is permanent. For Facebook’s apparent dominance there are plenty of other media companies who have enjoyed then squandered a position of dominance.

Until there is a better way of sharing cat videos then Facebook is likely to be around for a while.


30 days of human comms #69 South Warwickshire Foundation Trust’s letter to the children of staff

I’ve no doubt that historians will look back at this pandemic with wonder.

How did people cope? What did they do?

Often they’ll look at the big picture of the numbers and some key moments like the Prime Minister’s lockdown speech or they’ll look at fighting for toilet roll.

What they may miss is this. The period was 67 million stories of stress, bravery, boredom, frustration, grief, joy and tiredness. Every emotion, in fact.

Amongst those emotional stories are the children of key workers whose parents are doing key roles.

Step forward South Warwickshire NHS Foundation Trust. They’re not the first people to do this but they deserve credit for doing it. A letter home from the chief executive to the children of staff thanking them for supporting their parent.

It’s also written in very plain English ‘My name is Glen,’ it begins.

The danger of calling three months into the pandemic ‘the new normal’ is you stop caring so much about your internal comms.

This would be dangerous.

Sometimes internal comms isnt to communicate a strategy or directive but just to say ‘well done’ and ‘thank you.’ That’s a lovely human thing to do.

Bravo South Warwickshire NHS Trust.

And bravo Mum.