A nine-point guide to COVID-19 crisis communications

By Richard Stokoe | 31 March 2020

The public sector has a gargantuan task ahead. Get this wrong and it has implications for the rest of this decade and, probably, the rest of our lives.

One of the hardest jobs in managing COVID-19 that government at all levels face is how to ensure people are doing what is needed to stop the health and social care system from collapsing.

There needs to be a coordinated effort across the public sector to deliver the right messages to people in a way that they understand and can easily act upon.

Councils’ communication with residents must be much more sophisticated than a press release, Facebook update and tweet. Excellent communications are not an optional extra, they are central to this entire 'wartime' effort.

What does this mean in practice? Here is a nine-point guide to COVID-19 crisis communications.

Spend money on communications. Money is tight. But never has it been so important for information to get to people and organisations in as rapid a way as possible to change their behaviour.

Money needs to be spent. Don’t fiddle while Rome burns.

Tell it all. Tell it truthfully. Tell it quickly. This is an old adage in crisis communications. It may not be good news, in a crisis it rarely is. Residents will accept an honest appraisal of what is going on far more than if later they find you have covered up, misled or delayed bad news.

Stay on message and repeat it. Work out exactly what you want to tell residents and then say it. Then, keep saying it until you are sick to the back teeth of it. If it is specifically a council policy on, say, parking, make sure there is no contradiction between what is being said. If it is national Covid-19 instructions, follow what the message is. Do not deviate from the line.

Keep it short and simple. People are having to absorb a huge amount of alien information in a very short time and under enormous stress. Too many local authorities are issuing convoluted information in complex jargon that puts Tolstoy to shame. The Conservatives had ‘Get Brexit Done’ for the General Election. It was repeated until everyone was screaming. There was a very good reason for that. It works.

Use ArcGIS/business intelligence and Experian Mosaic to map communication preferences of households. Each council has a Business Intelligence Unit who use Geographical Information System mapping tools, probably ArcGIS. That team should have access to Experian Mosaic. Combine these, and the maps produced tell the council how individual households would prefer to be contacted.

Use traditional methods and innovative, creative techniques. A council Facebook and Twitter feed combined with a press release will hit the usual suspects but will not reach the majority of residents. SMS, Facebook adverts, targeted mailshots, to name but a few, have more reach and impact.

Use your staff. The most important communication tool available are council staff. Word of mouth is the most powerful information tool there is. Ask employees to tell 20 friends and neighbours a simple message and a large swathe of people will have a direct communication from a trusted source that they will listen to and act upon.

Use uniformed people not senior people. If you are using video to communicate to residents, avoid either senior management or politicians. Polls tell us that people listen, trust and act on information coming from the front line. Nurses, care workers, firefighters or police officers speaking from the heart works better. Alternatively, ask a vulnerable or elderly resident to sum up their fears and what should be done. Powerful, trusted, direct, effective.

Trust your comms department or get new people in. The communications team must be the go-to, trusted people who you know will deliver. If not then now is not the time for sentimentality. Instead, bypass them and create an arm’s length ‘Covid communications team’ of consultants to get things done. Then, start managing the old team out.

Communications has often been seen as a luxury. This time it is at the centre of quashing the spread of COVID-19, protecting the health and social care sector and saving lives. Local government will be the quiet, but effective, player in delivering this crucial agenda.

Richard Stokoe lectures at the University of South Wales on planning for disasters and civil contingencies and on strategic leadership. Before this, he worked as director of communications at the London Fire Brigade and was head of news at the Local Government Association.

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