External communications are rightly a priority at the moment, given the necessity of providing information and reassurances to residents. However, it is vital that internal communications are not neglected. It can assist with both external communications and the mobilisation of the organisation.
Do not assume council staff will not be susceptible to stories and misinformation about COVID-19. Modern communication is engagement: your staff are an excellent way to pick up stories (both positive and negative), misinformation and real issues. Simple processes and, in time, active initiatives to encourage factual and clear communication will reap dividends.
Below are some suggestions for how to engage internally in a way that supports community activities:
- Clarity and consistency of message: Show you have a plan, name the plan and prioritise transparent communications. Provide regular, clear updates on progress across the organisation.
- Equip all councillors to play leadership roles: All councillors (majority and minority group members and those with a portfolio or frontline position) have a vital role to play and are well placed to act as key message carriers and connect mutual aid groups with local needs. To do this, it is essential that timely and accurate information is shared with all councillors to support them to respond to and reassure their residents. The LGA has produced guidance for councillors to help them adjust to their new role in the midst of this crisis.
- Provide visible internal leadership: Regular updates with a personal face, all-staff conferences and video messages can be effective at ensuring staff feel that the conditions and pressures they are experiencing are recognised.
- Use internal channels to ask for assistance: When putting requests out to the voluntary sector and public, also direct requests specifically to staff. While many staff have been redeployed or are working at capacity, they may well know others who have the ability and the desire to support community activities and mutual-help groups.
- Think about staff as residents and potential communicators: they can be key influencers and agents for pro-social behaviour if you ask them to help to promote positive messages and create processes for recognising and rewarding their efforts.
- Be agile: Don’t rely on one channel and think about the wider role of technology to be as quick and inclusive as possible. Use everything at your disposal, including email, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, WhatsApp groups, intranets, YouTube, and SMS.
- Clear lines of responsibility: Make sure someone has clear responsibility for actioning internal communication and ensure that there is both corporate and political authority behind it. This should cascade throughout the organisation.
- Feedback channels: Create a means by which colleagues and councillors can feedback insight, ideas and experiences (this is a great way to develop channels) so staff can feel part of a two-way process.
Here’s how councils are approaching the situation:
East Lindsey District Council employee recognition scheme
Many councils run employee recognition schemes and awards and may be wondering what to do at this time. East Lindsey District Council runs an employee recognition scheme called Inspire which normally consists of biannual recognition events. The latest round of nominations closed just before social distancing measures were introduced, which meant the council had to rethink their approach. It was felt that more than ever, the work of staff should be recognised, but in a way that suited how we are all currently working. So, to that end, the Inspire recognition event was hosted via Facebook Live in the council’s employee Facebook group.
Nearly 60 per cent of the employee group attended the event live, with a large proportion of subsequent views of the video. Colleagues commented and really engaged throughout the broadcasting. The event also provided another opportunity for the council’s Chief Executive to highlight, in person, the amazing work undertaken as part of the response to COVID-19, as well as the achievements of all teams in 2019/20. The event was well received with lots of praise of the revised format giving a real boost to colleagues.
- Norfolk County Council video conferencing and messaging guide
Norfolk County Council has released this , which may be of help to councils as they adapt to new ways of working remotely. Topics covered include video conference best practice and etiquette; recommended platforms for different contexts (conferencing and messaging); and specific guidance for Teams and Zoom. The guide also lists a number of useful tips around ‘what not do’ in relation to communications platforms.
- Dorset Council Chief Executive visits an empty town hall
Dorset Council’s Chief Executive Matt Prosser visited the empty town hall, usually home to many council staff, to deliver a to colleagues and thank them for the hard work they are doing in response to COVID-19. It’s a simple yet very effective video.
Pembrokeshire County Council’s weekly Member updates
Pembrokeshire County Council have started a weekly briefing for all councillors. Every Friday, an update is circulated including a weekly round-up, updated FAQs and useful links. The weekly briefing was created to help all councillors to stay informed and to show how the political leadership is working for and on behalf of all councillors to best support their residents. The briefing is created by the council’s Cabinet Member for IT and Transformation, Cllr Neil Prior, who acts as the Member link for communications, and is a great example of councillors working to spread the load with officers.
- Staffordshire County Council - I Count campaign
I Count is an internal campaign to encourage colleagues from Staffordshire County Council to volunteer for other essential roles during the outbreak. The initial campaign launch saw a rallying call from the Chief Executive go to managers and other colleagues via a new senior manager Coronavirus briefing, The Knot (Staffordshire’s colleague e-update) and across other internal channels. Live webinars with the Director of Public Health have been used to facilitate question and answer sessions around care volunteering roles and the communications team have also created video training packages to support mobilisation. Over 780 colleagues have now volunteered, and many are now trained and working in their new roles.
- London Borough of Camden – keeping members informed
The London Borough of Camden has been in regular contact with its councillors to keep them informed in the current fast-moving situation. The council has built a , as well as a , both of which are continuously updated.
Having set up a dedicated COVID-19 Members inbox, there is a team monitoring the types of questions being sent in, to inform the organisation and prepare FAQs for the public. The team is providing councillors with a high-level snapshot of the queries that have come into the inbox so far, as well as a closer look at the questions from the previous week.
This provides insight into the range of concerns councillors are picking up from the community from topics such as schools and families, to food provision, financial support and volunteering. Topics asked about most frequently include adult social care, business and employment support, and protecting Camden’s communities and places.
This insight informs the regular Covid-19 email updates sent to all councillors, which provide them with updates on government announcements, key council services and communications to share with residents. Communications are also shared through the all-Councillors’ WhatsApp distribution list, which keeps members informed and helps them to communicate with residents.
The council is also supporting members in their role as community leaders to communicate Covid-19 key messages with residents through our community languages project. This has seen councillors filming videos and specific content produced for the borough’s Bengali and Somali communities. The council has also been providing a weekly Skype conference call for all members, in which the leader and executive directors update them on the latest developments and provide answers to specific questions submitted by members in advance of the call.
- The Improvement Service webinar guide
The Scottish Improvement Service has put together for local authorities, outlining what tech to consider, how to prepare effectively and tests and challenges to remember.
- Westminster City Council employee engagement and internal communications
Westminster City Council’s (WCC) approach recognises that in times of crisis, employees need more opportunities to communicate and engage – not fewer. The approach links closely with WCC’s people strategy, The Westminster Way, which encourages flexible and agile working. Of the 1,600 staff who are usually based at City Hall, just under 50 are still working from the office.
The council established a Daily Update on its intranet to keep staff informed of what was happening around the council and to explain new guidance that would affect them. This is supplemented by extensive FAQs, updated every couple of days. Together, these are proving very popular, with thousands of click-throughs each week, helping to limit contacts to the ‘silver’ tactical group and to the emergency control centre.
Important messages for all staff continue to be circulated by ‘The Loop’ – an ad hoc email message from the chief executive. So far, six messages have been sent, including positive messages to reassure and thank staff for the outstanding way in which they are dealing with the crisis. This is supplemented by the ‘business as usual’ method of e-communications – The Westminster Way staff newsletter, which has been repositioned to promote positive stories and case studies from teams across the council and important health and wellbeing messages. A new Health and Wellbeing Hub has also been created on the intranet, drawing together a wide range of information to ensure staff stay mentally and physically healthy throughout.
From the start, managers were advised to increase their team meetings, with many teams now holding daily catch-up sessions for staff, including a short slot at the beginning or end of the formal meeting for more light-hearted chat.
However, Westminster recognises that staff need to be able to hear direct from the chief executive and the Executive Leadership Team (ELT) in times of crisis, as well as to be able to ask questions direct.
To support this, the council set up ‘The Loop – Live’, extending the well-established ‘The Loop’ brand to a live format. These sessions are run through Microsoft Teams (maximum capacity 250 per session), with the chief executive and other members of ELT speaking for approximately 15 minutes and the rest of the hour slot left to answering staff questions.
Employees can ask questions in real-time through the chat function or by email. This has been very positively received by staff, with staff praising the openness and sincerity of the chief executive and welcoming his reassurance and praise for their hard work.
In the first week, Westminster held three sessions – all of which ‘sold out’. Each session was recorded and made available on a ‘The Loop – Live’ broadcast channel on the intranet, hitting hundreds more people. These events are now being held every Thursday, with one or two sessions planned each week, depending on demand. This is supplemented by Teams sessions led by executive directors with all staff in their departments and by service-level sessions led by line managers.
Each communication channel is monitored on a weekly basis. On any week day, the Daily Update and FAQs each receive more than 1,500 open ratings, helping to keep questions to the tactical group and emergency control centre to a minimum.
The Westminster Way newsletter and The Loop always had high readership levels. However, since the newsletter was repositioned, open ratings have increased by 7 per cent. Hit ratings for individual stories are also tracked to see what information staff are finding useful/interesting and this is helping to further refine content, increasing the number of human-interest stories from staff working on the front line.
The Loop – Live sessions are consistently ‘sold-out’, with over 100 people also watching the recordings - but the real benefit has been employees’ appreciation of the authentic way the chief executive and members of ELT have made time for them during the crisis and how they have encouraged and answered sometimes difficult questions. This is evident in all the feedback.
The LGA has produced guidance for councillors which highlights the role that individual ward councillors can play in supporting their communities through these difficult times.