We had just stepped out of emergency response mode when COVID-19 hit. As the flooding subsided and COVID-19 spread, Herefordshire Council took an early decision to relocate all staff out of its offices.
The communications team moved back into emergency response mode and all other communications activity was suspended, while we sought to understand what was most needed to support our residents and our colleagues. We relaunched our emergency response webpages and posted a Coronavirus blog to our website, with a site-wide alert, to provide the (near hourly) updates on changes to services and approach. Our social media and media schedule were cleared and national messaging from Government and health agencies was prioritised, providing local messaging and reassurance when needed. A daily bulletin was developed for staff, with an introduction by our chief executive, to support and inform them as they worked from home.
An early challenge was understanding the regional footprint for various agencies and contacts for us here in Herefordshire. We decided to step-up the existing One Herefordshire health communications group into a multi-agency Herefordshire focused communications cell. This group meets weekly to discuss local challenges, share messaging and plan forthcoming activity.
A Herefordshire response communications plan was developed and key audiences identified. Using local population insights, we identified our at-risk groups and analysed their communication preferences, ensuring our communications also targeted those who were not online. A letter was sent to each household to provide reassurance, advice and information on available support. This was followed by weekly adverts in the local newspapers, providing the latest guidance and advice. We placed adverts on the local commercial radio station with key messages for at risk groups and we regularly updated the Coronavirus blog into a full section on Coronavirus-related advice and signposting.
Our social media channels shared clear Government messaging, health and hygiene advice, and other advice from partners, as we saw the impact and implications of lockdown on the community. We worked with our local NHS Trust to build the recognition and following of their maternity Facebook group and promoted their posts to local mum’s networks. We used local key influencers to amplify messaging to 18-22 year olds on the need to stay at home. Despite our decision to share (and not recreate) national messages our social media reach has soared- with an average of 3.6 million impressions a day and a reach of 83.5k a day. A Facebook post promoting our blog reached 185,000 people. A Facebook post that showed our bin men ‘clap for carers’ received 326 likes.
We worked closely with our local BBC station to provide proactive updates and news coverage on the response, to help engage the local community and reach those audiences who were not online. A reporter was given privileged access to our local response team and key locations used during the response, such as the PPE hub, Incident room, and emergency mortuary. We worked with our local newspaper on messaging and campaigns. The joint campaign with the Hereford Times #LifeinLockdown project provided a county archive for people to submit their photos from lockdown. To help keep vulnerable residents informed and connected, we included a copy of the weekly newspaper with our Emergency Supply boxes.
As the country moved out of lockdown and messaging became more complicated, it became clear we would need localised messaging- especially when we learned that local authorities would soon be leading on the local response to outbreaks. We had been preparing to revise the organisational communication strategy with the recently elected Cabinet Members in the summer, following the recent adoption of the new County Plan. As we worked through the need for recovery communications, and the scale and impact of COVID-19 on the local economy was understood, it become clear that future council activity for the foreseeable future would be shaped by COVID-19, and that it may take some time for the county, and world, to fully recover.
We worked with the LGA to understand the vision and aspirations of our Leader and Cabinet Members, already articulated in the County Plan, and develop the communications strategy, to live with the threat of COVID-19 and its impact.
Using the Government Communications Service OASIS tools, the Safe Here campaign has been developed to act as the vehicle for recovery messaging and to provide a multi-agency campaign to support Herefordshire. It will also build recognition and be used to amplify urgent messages during outbreaks or local lockdown.
The biggest challenge for the communications team will be adopting culture change that will see us prioritise our communications for recovery and response, while some part of the organisation return to ‘business as usual’. This will require the support and understanding of Members and officers across the organisation, as we focus on supporting our residents, especially when they are most vulnerable.
- Use your ambassadors. Keep members and staff informed on what information, advice and support is available, so they can send it out to those who need it
- Prioritise digital… Make sure your digital platforms are resilient, so that when you need them in an emergency, they can be flexible and supportive, and valued by residents.
- …but don’t be afraid to go old school. A letter to every home provides personal support and assurance that you are reaching those who aren’t online (in Herefordshire that’s over 3,500 people)