Learning Lessons of Community Communication in the Pandemic

Finally, we are starting to see online communication about the Leicester Lockdown being shared in some of the many languages that are spoken here in Leicester. There are important lessons that need to be learnt about the communications strategies used by the public authorities throughout the pandemic, particularly as they have focussed on the mass-media communications approach. This approach has clearly proved to be inadequate and unsuited to the needs of people here in Leicester. 

Trying to communicate in a diverse city like Leicester needs more than posters spread around the city centre. It needs more than official spokespeople talking on BBC Leicester. It needs more than the firing-off of press releases to the Leicester Mercury. These things will reach a certain number of people but when the majority of the population of Leicester is defined by its diversity, then following majority-focussed communication practices aren’t going to work.

A workable strategy for communicating to a culturally diverse place like Leicester must start by recognising the different needs of the people who live here. It starts with sharing messages in different languages, but it then has to go much further.

The public health communication strategy must first recognise that this is an emergency and that new rules and processes have to be quickly put in place. This strategy must also recognise that the people who have live in the different neighbourhoods of Leicester are themselves a key asset. They are not a problem to be addressed with behavioural theories, nudges, or to be blamed when things don’t go the way they were intended by those in power.

The BBC is now finally circulating Covid-19 information on Twitter. It’s been produced in multiple languages. This is despite this service being offered and promoted to the public authorities via the Leicester Mutual Aid Network and others way back in March and April.

I discussed the problem of developing content for culturally sensitive media with Jal Kang of Shrinker Digital back in April. We talked about ways that online social communications must be handled differently to mass communications approaches. Jal was frustrated that content he produced at the time sat on the Leicester city Council YouTube channel and wasn’t actively shared or promoted.

Throughout the lockdown I’ve been discussing the problem of community communications as part of the Decentered Media podcast. It’s been frustrating to contend with the one-size-fits all approach that dominates our media and communications thinking. This transactional, mass communications model is clearly no longer fit for the task of supporting people during a pandemic. Something has clearly gone wrong here in Leicester. Perhaps it’s time to look at alternative solutions?

Decentered Media Podcast 071 – Planning for Community Sensitive Media

An effective community-led communications strategy has to take account of a number of issues, including:

The fact that many people are suspicious of social media because it is too easily hijacked by indignant people. Social media can be a scary place, with fake-news, scams and commercialtainment dominating the common social platforms. Journalists are less trusted because their business model is to chase  clicks with lurid headlines. Many people steer away from social media because they may be too easily blamed or belittled for the colour of their skin, their faith or their education levels. Faced with a seemingly endless wall of people professing hatred, it’s no wonder that social media has become its own worst enemy.

The comms effort has clearly been too narrow, too instructional, and lacking in cultural sensitivity. The comms model hasn’t built trust in a culturally inclusive and open manner. For example, if you spend your life dodging interaction with the public authorities because they may be actively out to ‘get you’ or sanction you, then why would you pay attention to the messages that the government needs to get across in a time of crisis? Why are we surprised that large numbers of people have turned away from government after our government has spent years promoting a hostile environment for the same people?

There is an opportunity, however, to use an alternative and well established approach to communications that isn’t so dependent on the centralised processes of the corporate media organisations. Community media organisations in Leicester, such as Leicester Community Radio, Takeover Radio, Kohinoor Radio, Radio2Funkey, Ramadan Radio, Radio Seerah and EavaFM providing a credible and vital service to people in the city and the outlying districts that surround the city.

Had national and local government invested in community media in the last decade, then community media may have been able to play a more resilient role as a long-term partner for civic and community information, development and trust building.

We might have been able to tell a different story here in Leicester, and in many other places across the UK, had community media been brought in from the cold. This would be a story in which ordinary people taking ownership of the pandemic narrative based on solidarity, trust, a strong sense of identity founded on a shared sense of belonging.

Leicester Community Radio, for example, is one of only a handful of community radio stations in the UK to have taken up Ofcom’s special Covid-19 licences. Ofcom have explained that these licences are being reviewed as the pandemic situation develops:

“Should there be a second wave of Covid-19, which leads to lockdown measures being tightened on a national level or specific to a region or location, we may, depending on the circumstances, consider making the Temporary Covid-19 SRSL licence product available to apply for again. If we do make it available to apply for again, we will aim to assess the application and determine if there is a suitable frequency available as quickly as possible.”

LCR has been able to develop programming content with three specific social gain and social value issues in mind.

First, community well-being. The risk of information overload means that programming can’t be a series of dramatic updates, but should instead take account of the needs of people to have an alternative space to listen to a trusted companion who shares updates, but who doesn’t lead on breaking the news.

Second, community cohesion is being tested in Leicester by the lockdown, with outlying parts of the city, and the surrounding county communities, not necessarily sharing the same sense of identification with other parts of the city. LCR is able to act as a bridge that covers all areas of the city. LCR doesn’t overlap with other stations, so it can’t do language based programming, so it’s an addition to the available platforms for enhanced communication. 

LCR doesn’t do new in the traditional broadcast sense. BBC Leicester’s remit is to provide news and information for both the county of Leicestershire and the city of Leicester. These are very different audiences, and so its useful to have an alternative platform that can speak more directly to the concerns of the people of the city. This information might not be packaged in a news bulletin, but it is valuable to the people who tune in to the station and who want to find out more about what is going on across the city.

Finally, information in a crisis situation is more effective if it comes from a trusted source. LCR is engaging with trusted members of the community to share updates and to give reassurance. With messages from community leaders, it’s been possible to give direct messages and to pass on information that listeners will find useful in their daily interactions.

The Emergency Message service that LCR developed, for example, is being used by the majority of community stations in the city and the county, and is an example of spontaneous support by volunteers which hasn’t needed expensive consultants or technical managers.

Clearly, there are alternatives to the standardised and centrally devised, top-down model of media communications, we just need those who control the media and communications strategies to recognise them as a viable option and open up their thinking.

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