COVID-19 communications: Insight

During uncertain times, insight and an understanding of your residents’ hopes, fears and priorities has never been more important.

Councils are the first line of contact with local communities, and that insight helps ensure they remain trusted, in touch, relevant and credible.

Surveys and data analysis might seem frivolous compared to more pressing day to day concerns during a global pandemic, but the reality is we need to know what people are feeling and thinking if we are going to effectively communicate with them and work on their behalf. We now know that we’ll be living with the virus for some time, so it’s important that we now take time to uncover what our residents are thinking and what lessons can be learned from the last three months.

Good communication is built on insight, and as we move from the response to the recovery phase of dealing with COVID-19 it will provide the basis upon which effective strategies can be developed.

At a national level, the LGA has been carrying out monthly national polling on local government's response to COVID-19. It has provided us with invaluable intelligence, showing that most people are satisfied with their council’s response to the pandemic and also trust it to put their interests first during recovery. Without this research, we would not have the same evidence base to drive our lobbying activities over the coming months.

Our latest polling into satisfaction with local councils, carried out every four months, has shown the most positive results since we started this research back in 2012. Satisfaction with the way councils run things, how informed they keep people and levels of trust have risen to record highs since the start of lockdown.

There is strong public demand for trusted sources of information, as Edeleman's report into trust and coronavirus has shown. Trust is important as it is the basis on which public institutions can build positive relationships, change behaviour and keep people safe. Councils have a vital role as official sources of information and need to reach audiences directly without relying on other intermediaries.

Locally, many councils have been carrying out their own surveys. This has been important from a public health perspective – for example by establishing people’s likelihood to download a test and trace app, their mental wellbeing and levels of physical activity – but they can also inform communications strategies. Which sources of information do people most trust during the pandemic? How are they accessing news?

It is possible that the way people consume information will have changed since March. We know that the decline in newspaper circulations has been worsened by the pandemic and that more people are accessing news via Facebook, but what is the situation in your area? Can you be sure that the channels you were using last year are the most effective now?

Research needs to be trustworthy itself and be well-designed to ensure that data is representative and robust, accounts for issues of sampling and bias. These issues need to be considered when drawing conclusions.

As the country starts to shift its focus towards recovery and renewal, the future shape of our local areas is coming under increasing focus. The fantastic efforts of local communities to protect people shielding and get essential supplies to the most vulnerable has rightly been heralded as one of the positive things to come out of this crisis. But will that spirit continue going forward? That is why councils are asking residents questions about whether they plan to volunteer more, or whether their connection to their local community has improved. It will in turn help them to nurture and build on any growing community spirit.

It is vitally important that we do not assume knowledge or expertise. Yes, we may see more people cycling on our streets as fewer use buses and trains, but do we know if this forms a basis for a future public transport strategy without proper research?

One of the most frequently asked questions of this pandemic has been what do people want to change, and what do they want to keep the same as we move to the recovery phase. This will form the basis of the strategies councils put in place for the future of their local areas, and any changes or adaptations to public services. Good evidence needs to inform that decision-making process and prevent anything which might put people at risk.

Authenticity and honesty of message will be important for all institutions going forward. Slogans such as ‘now more than ever’ or ‘together but apart’ are easy to trot out, but real traction will be gained by those organisations which show rather than tell. For councils, just announcing that you have an ambitious recovery strategy will not be enough – it needs to be grounded in the special context of the place, be ambitious but also realistic.

So, what are the tools and techniques that can be used to gain the right insight?

In pre-COVID-19-times, research may have included face-to-face engagement with residents, but while this now hindered, much can be done remotely, online or using secondary sources. Methods such as online and telephone surveys can continue, and digital approaches are starting to reshape how research is done. The Government Social Research Profession, for example, has issued guidance on social media analysis.

Representative surveys of the local population are one of the most effective and reliable pieces of research. Whether carried out by telephone or online, a survey can help answer questions that can’t be sourced elsewhere and ensure that your data is up-to-the-minute. They can also enhance existing knowledge. You might know how many people visit their local library, but a survey can help you understand why.

Many councils have set up citizen’s panels which can provide an effective sounding board – particularly during a time when so much of our activities are taking place remotely and online.

There are plenty of official statistics produced by public bodies that may hold the information you need at a local level, and many of these can be accessed via the LGA’s data platform LG Inform. The Government Statistical Service has produced a handy list of survey questions by topic to help make statistics more comparable. Improving comparability, of course, presents more opportunities to benchmark and share.

The Government’s decision to relax the rules around public notices and allow them to be placed online has also potentially opened more opportunities to increase engagement. We are seeing more consultations happening online, and planning decisions being made virtually.

The pandemic has exacerbated many inequalities, with coronavirus disproportionately impacting upon different parts of our communities. As we plan towards recovery, it will be vitally important to engage with underrepresented groups to ensure their voices are heard.

We know that recovery will look very different across the country. Some areas are thinking ahead to the opportunities presented by a potential increase in domestic holidays, while others will be uniquely impacted by the decline in certain sectors of the economy. This will mean areas within regions will recover in a different way, which means councils will potentially be less reliant on their existing and traditional networks. A seaside resort in the south east may find it better to compare itself with a similar place in the north west, rather than its geographical neighbours, for example.

Data and insight can give councils the confidence to know its communications will work. An understanding of audience is fundamental to the success of any organisation, not least during times like these.