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COVID-19 communications: Developing your strategy internally

How to engage members, senior staff and other colleagues.

Communications teams have been in the eye of the storm for months, playing a key role in amplifying or localising national public health messaging, reassuring communities and supporting employees as they get to grips with very different ways of working on the frontline or at home.

It’s likely, then, that senior political and managerial leaders have a new understanding and appreciation of the work delivered by communications. So now is the time - despite the continuing pressures with day to day work - to spend some time developing a strategic communications approach focused on making a difference in the places we serve.

Developing a robust Covid-19 recovery communications strategy supports effective planning of resources - the need to focus on new priorities ensures communications is in its rightful place at the heart of the organisation. It should help the organisation understand what’s important now and in the coming months – making sure that whatever challenges your council faces as we learn to live with Covid-19 and repair our battered places there’s a clear narrative and direction that provides residents and businesses with the reassurance that good local leadership can be trusted.

An organisational communications strategy often took weeks (even months) to draft, develop and approve in a pre-Covid-19 life. Now, despite all the other pressures on the time and space ideally needed to think strategically, there’s a window of opportunity that everyone should grasp to develop and deliver a piece of work which supports both your organisation and the communications team.

Elements of your strategy

While your strategy will focus on the specifics of recovery it’s worth including some general principles to support your approach – base them on your organisation’s values to remind people that in challenging times it’s important to hold onto core values and behaviours that should run through your organisation like letters in a stick of rock.

Generally, though, keep it simple and concise and use whatever template works for you alongside detailed action/implementation plans and a campaign planner.

Framing the new environment

The simplest explanation for a strategy is that it’s a piece of work that outlines where an organisation is now, where it needs to get to and how it’s going to get there. But how can you do that when there are no certainties about the future?

Stay clear and focused on what you do know, rooted in what was important to your council before the pandemic. Political and managerial leaders need to think about how big issues that have emerged over the past few months resonate with them and feel important for the future of your place. Consensus about what is most important to political and managerial leaders is crucial. Doing “everything” is not an option. Focus on five or so issues that feel most urgent - virtual workshops work well for this, especially if you set a time limit on your call to get some quick focused thinking from participants.

These could include:

  • new approaches to community engagement – self-help, support and the networks that have developed organically during the pandemic
  • a better understanding of the role and value of frontline workers – from binmen to carers – and health and social care
  • new ways of working – the future of the commute, working from home, a new role for local neighbourhoods
  • the future of the High Street, town centres and retail
  • visitors, tourism – open for business and residents feeling safe
  • climate change and the environment – walking, cycling and the importance of green spaces
  • economic recovery for SMEs and big manufacturers
  • community cohesion, the impact of covid on deprived communities and widening inequalities

Getting the tone right

Don’t get overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge; your communications strategy needs to outline a way forward for your organisation and the place it serves that’s pragmatic but optimistic. We have learned valuable lessons about the ways people and communities can support each other, the importance of local leadership and our key workers and how new ways of working are encouraging different conversations about the climate challenge, commuting and the work/life balance. There are opportunities to build on and developing a plan that develops some of these into specific, low cost campaigns will give your council positive momentum and a sense of purpose amidst all the uncertainty.

Some of these may feel small and very local compared to the big picture challenges. But a campaign to encourage cycling and walking around neighbourhoods, for instance, could have real impact with residents who noticed a greener, cleaner environment and appreciated the benefits of taking a daily walk during lockdown. Strong community leadership has never been more important and the right campaign should support your council’s leadership role.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

Dust off your Council’s Plan and remind yourself of your vision and key priorities. The world has changed, but the issues that were important before the pandemic and lockdown still matter. The challenge is to refocus your vision, reset your priorities and work with residents, partners, communities and businesses to lead your council into the future with confidence.

Most visions are general and all-encompassing so how does yours look through a Covid-19 lens? For example, Herefordshire Council’s vision, approved in its County Plan in February 2020, is:

Respecting our past, shaping our future - we will improve the sustainability, connectivity and wellbeing of our county by strengthening our communities, creating a thriving local economy and protecting and enhancing our environment.

The plan has three key themes - connectivity, wellbeing and sustainability – all of which resonate in the new environment. In two short Zoom sessions, led by the Head of Communications, members of the Council’s Cabinet looked at the three key themes in their County Plan and refocused them around priorities for the next year, developing ideas about campaigns and initiatives that would help Covid-19 recovery.

Engaging partners

Engagement is different these days – although councils are probably communicating with partners and employees more than ever before. Everyone is stretched and focused on the day to day and time is precious so developing a strategy with a clear narrative, key messages and objectives that partners can buy into helps everyone and fulfils your role as a strong leader of your place.

Some communications strategies are being developed and delivered through local resilience forums, so your NHS and blue light partners will be involved, but keep business communities, BIDs, parish and town councils and voluntary organisations updated as well – their support as you reset your relationship with business and communities will be crucial.

Engaging employees

An unexpected joy arising from lockdown has been the outpouring of unprompted, genuine affection and appreciation for the frontline council workers who kept essential services going. People properly missed their parks and their libraries when they were shut and were grateful that – throughout – bins were emptied and care workers protected our most vulnerable.

Meanwhile back office employees have been catapulted into new ways of working, embracing IT and streamlined processes that transformation teams could only have dreamed of pre-pandemic.

But it’s been exhausting for everyone and employees need protecting, supporting and celebrating in practical ways. Internal communications is a key part of your communications strategy – you may want to develop a separate internal communications plan to support the overall strategy – and engage with your employees so they can share your narrative, understand your priorities for the coming months and feel part of a future that’s not just focused on fear and pessimism.

Living with Covid-19

Underpinning all your proactive, planned work is the ongoing reality of living with a pandemic. For the foreseeable future you will be dealing with massive pressures on your frontline staff as lockdown eases with all the complexities new rules and regulations will bring.

Test and trace brings new challenges around trust and confidence in local leadership and relationships with local communities. At any time you could be back in crisis response, dealing with a second wave of the pandemic, local lockdown, community tensions and more. Your communications strategy and campaign plans may need to take a back seat and should be kept flexible enough to be easily revised if you need to.

But developing a strategy now will ensure your organisation has a key tool to help it get back on its feet and ready for whatever our uncertain future holds.