Communicating in a crisis: advice for local councils

The past year has underscored the importance of why Parish and Town councils should strive to build effective communication and engagement with their communities. The COVID-19 pandemic also showed that there are actions that local councils of all sizes can take to communicate effectively, even in the midst of a crisis.

Looking to the future, here is our summary guide for how parish and town councils can approach their plan for crisis communications in the future.

Planning Ahead

Everything starts with a plan. Your crisis communications plan should start by setting out the different audiences with whom you would want to communicate, such as your residents, local organisations, local businesses, etc. Next, be clear on what your ‘key messages’ for each audience might be, and remember your messages may vary according to the audience. Also be clear on which audiences you intend to share messages to and which you intend to share from (for example, local food banks or volunteer hubs). Then consider how your council will communicate, and where it could improve in this regard. Crucially, you need to ensure that you are able to communicate across a good mix of digital and traditional methods.

How to Communicate Effectively

Communicating digitally is often free, quick and highly effective. Most usefully, it enables you to segment your messages to different audiences and objectively understand your ‘digital reach’ and your impact using a range of Key Performance Indicators. This should encompass your council’s social media (ideally, across multiple platforms), virtual live and pre-recorded public meetings and events, your website, email newsletters and for some parish and town councils, even digital notice boards!

No matter which digital channels and platforms your council uses (and you should ideally use a number of them), consider how you will stand out from the crowd and how you intend to ‘cut through’ the ‘digital noise’ that exists across social media in particular. A really effective way to do this is to utilise the power of pre-recorded and live video. Video enables you to explain complex issues in an easy-to-understand way, it can be personal, friendly and – most importantly – captures interest.

Going ‘live’ once a week (or more regularly) on your social media will significantly and positively impact your ability to reach more people, enabling you to effectively disseminate your messages.

Remember that traditional methods still matter too. For example, have a list of stakeholder contacts for key places where you can display or provide printed material, such as at bus stops, notice boards, shops, businesses, schools, etc. Even flyers on the local shop counter could reach large numbers of people in the community. Printed newsletters, posters, and even letters are also effective. Remember, some people still can’t be reached easily via digital communications. In fact, according to the ONS, it was found in 2018 that 5.3 million adults (10% of the population) were “internet non-users”.

For the next part of your plan, consider where you intend to obtain information from. Partner organisations such as principle tier authorities, emergency services, local charities and other organisations can all provide useful information. Many will even produce generic or template literature that you could use or share with your audiences.

The final stage of your plan should set out how and when you intend to communicate – and who will make it happen. Remember that repetition of your messages is key to success! Just because you’ve said something once or twice does not mean that people have heard the message.

Once you have all this information make sure it is recorded. For some it could be as simple as a bullet point list. For others it will be set out in a communications policy or emergency plan. 

Developing an emergency plan is a way of ensuring that basic information is shared. It allows a local council to build links with the community and partners. The more people who know about the plan and have input the better.

When a Crisis Hits

So, what to do when a crisis actually happens? First step: don’t panic. If you have a policy or plan, use it and adapt where needed. In any event, consider the following: 

Goals and objectives. Set out what you are trying to achieve and how you plan to do it. One basic goal is ensuring that the largest number of people receive key messages.

Key messages. The best thing to usually do is to have several simple key messages and to keep repeating them.

Who will provide the information. It is important to ensure consistency and clarity. A Council might for instance wish to appoint a single spokesperson.

Now start communicating – and keep communicating. Remember to keep your messages simple, use clear language and aim to reach as much of the community as possible. Don’t forget to adapt and respond to changes in circumstance and information.

Finally, once the crisis is over, hold a review. Try to record the things that worked as well as the things that didn’t, for the next time.

 

Breakthrough Communications are NALC’s national partner on communications, engagement and data protection. Find out more about how we help local councils at www.breakthroughcomms.co.uk/lcr.

 

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