‘Next slide please.’ None of us will easily forget Professor Chris Whitty’s words at the regular Downing Street press conferences, as he shares the latest public health messaging around the pandemic.
Public health information from central government paints a broad picture of the COVID situation across the UK - and national communications on the subject follows suit. But rarely does it allow for targeted local messaging, nuanced to reflect the situation on the ground.
Last month Professor Whitty, speaking at the local government conference, called for more tailored messaging from local authorities amid the latest COVID surge. It’s something that leaders and directors of public health in seven of the local authorities in the North East of England (LA7) have been acting on for nearly a year now, with successful outcomes.
Back in September 2020, a partnership was formed between County Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Northumberland, South Tyneside and Sunderland councils, supported by Northumbria and County Durham Local Resilience Forums to tackle the unprecedented COVID situation in the North East.
The seven authorities came together on a novel public health initiative, to understand more about the attitudes of our residents towards COVID guidance. We used the insight gathered through robust market research to create a localised and targeted communications campaign that would help slow the spread of the virus in the North East. It also helped inform our collective response to the pandemic from a public health perspective.
Collaboration was key. The North East of England is a relatively small geographical area, with many people moving between cities, towns and villages on a daily basis for work and leisure, so containing the virus within a local authority boundary was never going to work outside of lockdowns. The aim was to suppress the virus regionally, appealing to residents collectively to do the right thing at a local level, in the interests of the whole North East community.
Our collective campaign was grounded in robust research, carried out across the seven local authority areas - an urban and rural mix. The research identified three key themes;
- The campaign needed to be credible and resonate highly with the North East public bringing a desirable future closer. It was clear that many decisions people made were driven by their emotions, not by facts.
- We needed to empathise with people, understand how difficult it was to make the right choices and remind them of the importance of following the guidance.
- We needed to frame how to get there in incremental steps but without hectoring. The benefit messages needed to be for everyone - individuals, friends, family, vulnerable people, businesses and local services.
Any partnership project relies on co-operation, transparency and buy-in, regardless of political persuasion. This was about addressing a serious public health issue for all our residents - and fast.
Leaders, elected mayors, chief executives, directors of public health and heads of communication came together to review the research and agree the creative campaign they felt would have the most impact. ‘Thank You North East’ was chosen.
There were no council logos or political figureheads - this was about local people delivering the message. A police officer, nurse, teacher, bus driver, ambulance worker, pharmacy dispenser, and grandmother were chosen as the voices of the campaign, reminding the audience why following the guidance was so important.
A research tracker continued to monitor local attitudes to the national and regional guidance around COVID, and found that;
- 94% of residents took a clear message from the campaign around a strong sense of community; acting for the common good; following rules to help local people
- Nearly half of those who saw the campaign took action as a result
- 77% said the campaign ‘helped me understand why I need to do more to tackle the virus’
- 92% of people who saw the campaign agreed that they had the information they need to keep themselves and others safe
- 90% of the region who had seen the campaign agreed that they need to persevere to get through the crisis.
- A huge 97% of people who had seen the campaign agreed that following all the relevant COVID rules was important
What next? The mood both nationally and regionally has changed dramatically since the dark days of winter - and will continue to do so.
Our public health messaging at a local level must remain relevant and reflect how residents are feeling on the ground - we must keep step with the mood of our people. The LA7 continues to work together, actively tracking the sentiment of North East residents through ongoing research and using that insight to develop our communications messaging.
A third phase is in development, encouraging local people to be kind and support each other to do the right thing as we enjoy the summer. Although coronavirus infection rates have reduced across the region recently, they remain high and it’s vital that we stay vigilant and minimise COVID transmission risks as much as we can.
If the LA7 public health work has proved anything, it’s that Professor Whitty is correct in his advice that local authorities must offer leadership and clear and relevant advice to their residents. In the North East specifically, it’s shown that we are stronger together in the battle against the pandemic.
Gerry Taylor is Executive Director Public Health and Integrated Commissioning at Sunderland City Council. She is also part of the LA7 group of North East councils tackling the COVID public health crisis through a partnership approach at a local level.