Karen Steel 07 October 2020

Communicating with citizens in a crisis and beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a well-documented acceleration in digital change for councils. Local authorities have overcome many of the remaining barriers to change - embracing systems and platforms which have enabled them to not only keep vital services running and the lines of communication open with citizens, but arguably build a deeper sense of engagement in the process.

But what next? As regional restrictions are likely to be the norm over the next six months, the government is increasingly looking to local authorities to help manage local outbreaks on the ground. We’ve already seen some councils in high-infection respond with more localised communications. Councils are, after all, best placed to understand and respond to the needs of their citizens.

The Local Government Association has recognised the important role that communications will play in this next phase, and its development of templates and examples is a good starting point. There is clearly a lot for council teams to think about – but learning from the past six months and having a clear communication plan in place should be at the top of the list to secure the best possible outcomes.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail

It may seem obvious, but the more that councils put into their crisis communications planning, the easier the response will be. There is enough to think about during a crisis, and things can change in an instant - so a flexible plan and mindset to go with it will set teams up for success. Part of that planning process will be to set some operational goals, and evaluate risks and considerations which might impact them so that everyone is clear on what the response looks like.

Knowing your audience is at the heart of any successful communications campaign. Councils will have a whole range of stakeholders to consider in their response – residents of course, but also businesses and visitors to their area. Serving them with compelling, targeted messaging delivered via the right mix of channels will keep them engaged and help them protect themselves and each other.

Mastering message development

Developing key messaging is born out of what you need people to know, do and feel. Messages should be clear and concise – providing timely, truthful information and calls to action so that citizens can make informed decisions that are in their best interests and those of the wider community.

The pandemic has given rise to the circulation of misinformation which has the potential to have serious consequences for public health. The public is looking to councils to combat this, acting as a source of truth which connects them with the facts as verified by experts, via the delivery of regular communication updates. Tools like an email communication platform can help with reaching the right people, with the right messages, at the right time and place.

Monitoring engagement and sentiment

Good communication is a two-way thing – so evaluating how well your messages have landed and the effect they have had is an important part of the process. This will allow for continuous improvement as you hone in on what works best based on analysis of the data you can find in communication platforms. These insights can help you identify the impact that your communications had on the response to the outbreak and highlight any lessons learned to inform future plans.

East Riding of Yorkshire Council used the Granicus platform to respond at speed to the coronavirus pandemic, and was able to make a real impact. Targeted information campaigns made them a trusted source of information and advice with citizens. One of their campaigns also helped drive home a call to action which prompted the sign up of 2,500 community volunteers to the Hey Smile Foundation and 4,000 staff by the end of March – making a real difference to the council’s overall response.

Councils leading the way

With an even more important, strategic role to play in how the UK controls and overcomes the coronavirus pandemic, clear communication from councils will be vital as they lead the way forward. If the right planning and tools are in place, it will ultimately help local authorities to achieve better outcomes for their citizens – and most importantly of all, save lives.

Karen Steel is customer success manager at Granicus

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