COVID-19 communications: Working with partners

One positive side effect of the current COVID-19 crisis has been a renewed energy, purpose and commitment to partnership working across local government, public sector partners, charities, the voluntary sector, community groups and new hyper-local networks.


One positive side effect of the current COVID-19 crisis has been a renewed energy, purpose and commitment to partnership working across local government, public sector partners, charities, the voluntary sector, community groups and new hyper-local networks.

The ‘new normal’ has yet to be fully understood, but one certainty is that we must continue to work together, strengthening our new networks across organisations as we move towards recovery and prepare for what might happen in the coming months.

Councils are gaining a deeper insight into their local networks than ever before, leading to a better understanding about the issues concerning local people on the ground. Councils and local partners have increased collaboration including joint campaigns, information sharing and public support for each other’s roles in tackling the many issues the pandemic presents.

Councils are now more likely to proactively plan communications with their partners, rather than working as a single organisation or involving partners on an ad hoc basis. Local partners are regularly publicising case studies to highlight the valuable contributions of each organisation, for example promoting case studies during Carer’s Week and showcasing the valuable work of staff on the frontline.

Throughout the response to the pandemic, what was clear was that the volume of content being pushed out to residents by organisations was huge. When local partners began to work together, this meant that messaging was clear and consistent, minimising the risk of confusion.

There have been many great examples of how communications teams have come together with fantastic examples of partnership working, demonstrating that they are stronger by working together with a shared approach.

Greater Manchester Joining Together

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority is working with the NHS and local partners on the Greater Manchester: Joining Together Campaign. The campaign seeks to reinforce public health messaging and to ensure that key information can cut through the noise. Insight had shown that the national communications were creating public uncertainty, so a local approach featuring recognisable and relatable community figures was favoured.

So, a single Greater Manchester campaign was created, that could add value to local and partner activities. A broad range of issues, such as social distancing and threats to physical health, from a variety of partners would be communicated through a consistent, trusted identity. The campaign mission states “In Greater Manchester we’re joining together – all playing our part in stopping coronavirus”. Multiple key themes and messages are now shared under a single, consistent identity.  The campaign website features easily editable materials that can be used by individuals, community groups, businesses or public sector organisations.

Drawing on insight indicating high levels of public trust, the decision was made to feature NHS in Greater Manchester on primary campaign materials. The campaign is intended to be further developed to run through release of lockdown (0-2 months) and while living with COVID (0-12 months). This will be done by developing more specific and targeted messages for the communities identified as most at risk. You can read more on the campaign in the campaign briefing.

Surrey Communications Group

The Surrey Communications Group is a long established 100 strong network of public sector communicators from across Surrey. It is made up of the county, district and borough councils, NHS bodies, the emergency services, colleges, universities and several charities. The group, which encourages partnership working and facilitates cross-sector discussions and activities, has come into its own during the COVID-19 crisis. Working with health, voluntary and community sector partners

London Borough Heads of Communications network

The London borough Heads of Communications network communicates via a dedicated WhatsApp group and has been meeting virtually via Skype once a week since the crisis began. These virtual meetings include regular guest speakers covering issues such as latest opinion polling on how people feel about getting back onto public transport. This is useful intelligence that Heads of Communications can feed back as part of the planning for their own councils, as well as communicating to relevant local partner organisations.

Council communications teams had already been working closely with NHS communications colleagues in CCGs, Hospital Trusts and as part of wider Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) communications networks.

Playing an active role in local health communications networks has ensured that councils are linked into the latest news and information. Councils and NHS communications teams are regularly sharing information, including internal staff briefings, with a coordinated communications approach on a range of key issues affecting carers and social workers, for example PPE supply.

In the future, as more areas move to becoming an Integrated Care System (ICS), bringing together local health and care organisations and councils to re-design care and improve population health, the scene is set for even stronger partnership working with joint objectives and shared campaigns and resources.

Pre-COVID-19, joint communications working with the NHS often meant supporting the annual winter flu campaign, which will be more important than ever this year. But there is a huge opportunity now to do more as councils look to move beyond the impact of the pandemic, which will be built on the council, residents and partners working together.

Working with Voluntary and Community Sector Partners

At the end of March, the NHS launched its volunteer campaign, seeking volunteers to help those who had been asked to shield themselves from coronavirus. This was not intended to replace local groups helping their vulnerable neighbours, but local councils soon found themselves inundated with local offers of volunteer support.

Councils have worked closely with their Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) organisations to manage the volunteering offer locally, and the VCS has been a key partner in helping councils to respond effectively to the pandemic at a community level, tailoring volunteering offers into a collaborative effort to get help to the people that need it.  

Many council communications teams have provided incredible support to VCS organisations, who often do not have their own dedicated communications resources and channels. Voluntary and Community sector organisations have benefited from support and guidance from their council communications partners.

 Consider whether a review and structure should be put in place around how and when to activate working with VCS colleagues, for example if the pandemic were to escalate again, then partner work that had become dormant could be quickly re-established.

Communications forward planning

Many of you will already have established communications forward plans for your own organisations, although these are likely to have changed significantly in the last few months.

Proactively work with partners on a shared communications forward plan to cover:

  • Covid related campaigns already agreed and proposed new campaigns in priority order
  • Non-Covid campaigns
  • Risks – if staff or budget become unavailable in one organisation, can another organisation resource the campaign?

Our future is uncertain, so development of ‘what if’ scenarios, including pre-planning of communications messaging, channels and lines of responsibility, will help to deliver a fast response to emerging issues which could include:

  • Test and trace
  • A second spike nation-wide
  • Localised lockdown impacting your geographical area or a neighbouring area
  • Localised outbreak in specific businesses, such as food businesses

A shared communications planner should include information about the channels used by all partners for communicating with both internal and external audiences. It may be worth reviewing the following with partnership colleagues:

  • Are you clear about which communications channels are most effective for reaching different audiences?
  • Have partners any new learning about which channels are the most effective for reaching Black And Minority Ethnic (BAME) audiences?
  • Have new channels superseded others in recent months?
  • Have any new channels emerged being used by hard to reach groups?

How digital technology made partnership working easier

When the crisis hit and lockdown began, both professional and community networks were forced to adopt digital methods of communicating and working together at an astonishing speed. Skype, Zoom, WhatsApp groups and Microsoft Teams rapidly became accepted ways of working, ensuring that we stay connected and enabling successful home working.

The speed at which we have embraced the use of digital technology has been astonishing.  Online meetings enable us to visually interact with the participants and can make meetings more effective and lead to better, more economical ways of working. It can change the energy and dynamics of organisations and sometimes results in more creative ways of communicating that we hadn’t imagined even a year ago. Many councils are already running ‘Ask the Leader’ style events on Zoom and Facebook as well as Question Time for Business events on Facebook.

The urgent necessity caused by the crisis forced us to get over our fear of digital and destroyed many of the old blockers, whether rules set by IT departments, cultural aversion or just the difficulty of getting everyone to agree.

As a result, it’s now much easier to connect to colleagues across partner organisations, both formally and informally. Many councils have also been able to tap into a host of both new and established community groups and hyper-local groups, enabling us to reap new insights and make use of new channels.

We’ve all learned a lot and now would be a good moment to review and where necessary, formalise our partnership networks, digital tools and ways of working. For each partnership group or network, consider the following:

  • Review the digital tools being used and whether they’re the most appropriate tool now – for example, many of us started on Zoom and then moved to more secure tools such as Microsoft Teams.
  • Agree the terms of reference for the group, establish protocols for frequency of meeting/communication, be clear about confidentiality.
  • Agree which individuals will have owner or admin status for the group including adding/removing group members.
  • Where the network includes people who are less familiar with technology, offer them support and provide a summary of do’s and don’ts (e.g. how to use the mute feature, how to turn off video if their wifi/internet speed is too slow to support video, etiquette on WhatsApp)
  • Check to see if new guidance has been provided by IT departments and ask how IT staff are working across organisations to enable seamless partnership working.

Another advantage of working digitally is that we’re able to share resources such as content and digital assets immediately. This can be helpful but can also lead to accidental misuse. When working with partners and sharing digital assets for campaigns, ensure everyone is able to access the following:

  • A Partnership-Working Style Guide that clearly describes how all partners should use each other’s branding and logos for different formats, channels and audiences.
  • Shared digital assets that have permission/copyright for use by all partners.

The response to the pandemic has shown us that our communications teams are stronger when they work together, sharing information and resources with public and voluntary sector partners. At the time of writing, the government is loosening lockdown and preparing us for the ‘new normal’. Now is the time for us as partners to take stock, refine our new ways of working and put in place plans so we’re prepared for whatever comes next.