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Communicating with citizens in a crisis and beyond

communication technology
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

In the midst of the second wave of the coronavirus crisis, getting the communication right is absolutely key - not only to make sure that everyone understands the new restrictions but also to ensure that citizens know where to access vital support if they are vulnerable or self-isolating.

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to a well-documented acceleration in digital change for councils, which have had to implement new platforms and systems at a phenomenal rate to give them the tools they need to cope with increased demand on services, as well as the support they need whilst adhering to guidance to work from home. 

With this, local authorities have overcome many of the remaining barriers to change - embracing systems and platforms which have enabled them to not only keep vital services running and the lines of communication open with citizens, but arguably build a deeper sense of engagement in the process.

But now a whole new set of challenges awaits them. The second lockdown means that the guidance and restrictions are changing by the day, and this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. While we enter a further period of national restrictions, the government has stated its intention to return to tiered regional restrictions and will be once again looking to local authorities to help manage local outbreaks on the ground. Councils are, after all, best placed to understand and respond to the needs of their citizens.

The Local Government Association has recognized the important role that communications will play in the wake of the new national restrictions, as well as the next phase after that, and its development of templates and examples is a good starting point for research. There is clearly a lot for council teams to think about – but learning from the successes and failures so far and having a clear communication plan in place should be at the top of the list to secure the best possible outcomes.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

It may seem obvious, but the more that councils put into their crisis communications planning now, the easier the response will be. There is enough to think about during a crisis, and things can change in an instant - so a flexible plan and mindset to go with it will set teams up for success. Part of that planning process will be to set some operational goals, and evaluate risks and considerations which might impact them so that everyone is clear on what the response looks like.

Knowing your audience and understanding how they want to be reached is at the heart of any successful communications campaign. Councils will have a whole range of stakeholders to consider in their response – residents of course, but also businesses and visitors to their area. Serving them with compelling, targeted messaging delivered via the right mix of channels, such as email, social media and text, will keep them engaged and help them protect themselves and each other.

Mastering message development

Developing key messaging is born out of what you need people to know, do and feel. Messages should be clear and concise – providing timely, truthful information and definitive calls to action so that citizens can make informed decisions that are in their best interests and those of the wider community.

The pandemic has given rise to the circulation of misinformation which has the potential to have serious consequences for public health. The public is looking to councils to combat this, acting as a source of truth which connects them with the facts as verified by experts, via the delivery of regular communication updates. Tools like Granicus’ govDelivery platform can help with reaching the right people, with the right messages, at the right time and place.

Monitoring engagement and sentiment

Good communication is a two-way thing – so using data capture to evaluate how well your messages have landed and the effect they have had is an important part of the process. This will allow for continuous improvement as you hone in on what works best based on analysis of the data you can find in communication platforms. Take the pandemic as an example, these insights can help you identify the impact that your communications will have in this new response to the outbreak and second lockdown and highlight any lessons learned to inform future plans.

East Riding of Yorkshire Council used the Granicus platform to respond at speed during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic and was able to make a real impact as a result. In fact, one of their campaigns also helped drive home a call to action which prompted the sign up of 2500 community volunteers to the Hey Smile Foundation and 4000 staff by the end of March – making a real difference to the council’s overall response.

Targeted information campaigns made them a trusted source of information and advice to all of its citizens when the country first went into lockdown and the insights gained from their platform will enable to make better decisions throughout this current lockdown period.

Councils leading the way

With the advice from central government changing at such rapid pace right now, councils have an even more important, strategic role to play in how the UK controls and overcomes the coronavirus pandemic.

Clear communication from them will be vital as we head into the new national restrictions, and they will likely lead the way forward in delivering more direct support and information to communities than ever before. If the right planning and tools are in place, it will ultimately help local authorities to achieve better outcomes for their citizens – and most importantly of all, save lives.

Karen Steel, Customer Success Manager, Granicus