COVID-19: Add value, not noise

By Andrew St Ledger | 01 April 2020

As public servants, our duty to look after our communities and protect the most vulnerable people is essential in our day-to-day lives. It is there, in our minds and enshrined in everything we do. During this COVID-19 pandemic, that duty exists now more than ever. It feels very different though. It is urgent, 10-fold, high-risk. It’s make or break.

This applies to council services in the same way it does to communications. There is an enormous amount of great work being done, by Suffolk CC, district and borough councils, our clinical commissioning groups, emergency services, charities and community groups, both individually and collectively to respond in this crisis. But our residents and customers need to know about this work and understand exactly what it means for them. This is where good, co-ordinated communication is critical.

We realised early in the pandemic that people could not get enough information. There is an overwhelming need for clear and honest guidance and reassurance, not least because the changes to our lives are so significant.

While the national message is key, people are looking to local leaders for answers and visibility. But it is important to add value, not noise.

We need to be there with reliable, well-timed and well-executed information. This is the time to focus on what people really need to know.

We decided that while we would amplify national messages, we would do so in a way that our residents would recognise as being for and about Suffolk. This included creating new recognisable visual materials that people can trust, and establishing key individuals, such as our director of public health, chief executive, chief fire officer and leader, as our consistent messengers.

In ‘peacetime’, my multi-skilled communication officers’ work is structured around our wider range of Cabinet portfolios, or ‘our messages’ as we generally call them.

However, because our message has essentially centralised around a COVID-19 narrative, and information need has grown significantly, we have temporarily restructured the team into sub-groups focusing on media, stakeholder communications, social media and web, and internal communications.

This is working well with significant amounts of good quality and relevant information being distributed daily. We are also using our video and graphics team to good effect. This realignment has ensured that each team member plays a role in our COVID-19 response.

We have additionally introduced a daily COVID-19 briefing, which is sent to Suffolk MPs, media, councillors, staff and key stakeholders. It covers national announcements as well as details of key Suffolk issues for that day. Media interviews and reports happen several times a day and night, which we embrace and encourage.

We have significantly stepped up our social media and online activity. The majority of what we do is grounded in the national message, but has been adapted and rebranded for Suffolk.

For example, we have created a series of graphics and animations to update people and make the material more shareable.

We have also increased communication with our staff with a single daily update from our chief executive. This briefing holds the same weight as any other stakeholder or public communication, and includes announcements, or HR or IT advice. With many staff working from home, the sense of unity and pulling together is important to maintain.

You should never underestimate the reassuring power of the fire service, which was seen this weekend when they visited 240 households across Suffolk to check on some of our most vulnerable residents.

The response was hugely positive and demonstrated Suffolk’s community spirit is alive and well. This is equally demonstrated by the tremendous response to our new ‘Home, But Not Alone’ volunteering app and seven-day-a-week phoneline for vulnerable residents to call for help. We created these with partners in Suffolk.

As far as communication goes, I’m not saying that what we are doing is groundbreaking. I am arguing that we are focusing on getting the basics right. My five key lessons, some of which I knew and some I didn’t, are:

1–You can achieve an amazing amount of really good work in a short amount of time.

2–It doesn’t have to perfect, but it does need to be well-timed and audience-focused.

3–Add value, not noise.

4–Visible local leadership is essential, and you have to make it happen.

5–Talk to people, not about them.

COVID-19 is not something that is happening in other countries, or other parts of our country. It’s happening everywhere, in our communities too. We need to give people the right information to help them get through this and show what we are doing. That’s our job now for the foreseeable future.

Andrew St Ledger is head of communications, consultation and media at Suffolk CC

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