Over the period of the lockdown I have been tracking how community media groups and organisations in Leicester have been responding to the challenge of facilitating community-focused information that has a predominantly social-gain focussed and not-for-profit approach. I’m updating my research periodically to include new contributions that reflect different points of view about the value of community media in a time of local and national crisis. My aim is to develop a statement of findings that points towards where things have worked well, and where lessons need to be taken up and improvements made for the future. There is a risk of public statements about the effectiveness of community responses only reflecting the positive and valued contributions that have been made. While I don’t want to downplay any of the positive activities that have made a difference, I also don’t want any account of community media here in Leicester to be blind to the critical issues and lessons that need to be addressed in the future. In this regard I fully expect my work to be the subject of critical evaluation regarding this process, because it’s the lessons of what we can do differently and learn from that are most important.
To start with, many of the respondents that I surveyed and interviewed have reported that there were some positive outcomes from the lockdown, and that they had been able to note that there have been strategic benefits from a greater sense of coordination in community communications. This included a noticeable increase and more responsive use of social media, which was reported to be appreciated by participants, clients, partners and funders. People that I spoke with noted that members of informal and mutual networks, however, often provided information that was more beneficial than official government sources, and that respondents often preferred to use their own networks to link with people in Leicester who they felt have a strong influence on their communities. A priority for future development, it was noted, should be to improve access to the communications process for poor and isolated people who are not able to access established services or use online processes for themselves.
It was felt that the exploration of different social media platforms for the purpose of sharing stories and issues of discussion about the pandemic would have been more effective if it related more directly to the core communities and participants. It was proposed that mutual aid and civic society groups should try to articulate a model of what Building Back Better would mean locally to Leicester, and that this discussion should be based around community communications that would promote active civic deliberation and democratic discussion as part of the local system of self-governance across all services.
Respondents felt that it was important to recognise the work of, and engage with, local reporters in traditional media outlets, particularly their extended work on social media platforms. Respondents also felt that there must be a recognition and engagement with the work of responsible social media users who have supported the dissemination of information according to principles of openness, transparency and accountability. It was noted that a high-level of leadership and management expertise already exists in the civic and community sector in Leicester, and that this expertise is embedded and connected within the already established networks that exist within the city.
However, linking up thinking about communications, according to the respondents, proved to be problematic. It was suggested that there should be a collective effort to combine resources and to seek ways to share information, knowledge and experiences, with the aim of mobilising citizens, reducing fear and isolation, and bringing people together. This would mean bringing together communications professionals with community media advocates, who should be encouraged to focus on the ‘trusted companion’ role of community media. This would mean understanding that community media is not a platform for breaking news or the interrogation of public officials. It was felt that work needs to be done to promote forms of community communication that can be grounded in local knowledge, and which can be created and shared by people with local experience, using community communications to target specific neighbourhoods, language groups, faith groups and other communities of identity.
While respondents to the survey and interviews reported that there were some positive outcomes to the lockdown, that they noted that there are many strategic challenges of community communications that still need to be addressed. This included looking at ways to develop a more robust and differentiated approach to communication that goes beyond marketing and commercial social media communication practices. It also included the need to develop an asset-based and community development approach (ABCD) to community communications. An approach that fosters involvement and participation through creative practices.
Developing and producing updated information guidance for public bodies on how to manage community communications was regarded as a priority. In addition it was felt that by offering support for specific language groups to assist signposting for organisations and individuals, it would be possible to coordinate and managing the dissemination of information and updates from a wider range of organisations and social sector groups about their activities.
Respondents also recognised that there is a need to raise awareness, and to train councillors and local public services officials about community communications. They felt that there is a need to encourage public authority leaders to participate in community conversations about service development and provision. Respondents identified a need to diversify media engagement models, especially those that expand beyond press releases and formal radio appearances. This should include the recognitions and celebration of the role of the mutual aid groups, and the informal social sector groups that have less established relationships with public bodies. As the lockdown progresses there will be a need to counter the often pernicious, one-dimensional and negative narrative of national media around ethnic and cultural identity, which respondents believe seeks to divide people. Instead, there is a clear need to build alternative capacity for the sharing of local stories of social integration through community communication platforms. These platforms must be capable, it was felt, of ensuring that claims that groups or individuals make to represent specific communities need to be verified and tested, thus avoiding self-appointment.
It was noted by respondents that transformation will be achieved locally by ensuring that reflection, evaluation and recommendations for change are produced publicly and openly. A strategy for enhanced community communications therefore needs to be developed that can ensure that community radio is more widely recognised as a designated key services which regulated by Ofcom as an essential information source. This strategy must promote, and support calls for additional funding and resources to support increased diversity in the supply of community communications and information. In the Build Back Better strategy, therefore, respondents felt that any strategy must ensure that community media is embedded as a core process, thereby ensuring that information that is distributed to community communications groups is timely and relevant.
To make these changes, respondents felt that there has to be improved public coordination and access to information that can be refunctioned for audiences that mainstream media does not reach. This strategy must avoid a reliance on central government advertising that is generic and follows the limited model of engagement employed by commercial radio organisations. This strategy must also recognise that BAME people must have direct access to communication platforms and to the governance and control of those platforms. Respondents felt that this strategy must go beyond the established media contacts databases, and recognise and use the community assets that exist in the form of youth workers, community workers, voluntary organisation and mutual aid groups. It was felt by respondents that there must be a change in the role profile of public authority communications teams to include engagement with civic and community sector organisations. These teams should focus on prioritising key messages that are relevant to changes in community capacity in order to respond to the pandemic and other forms of social change, and must disseminate as much accurate information as possible in culturally sensitive forms, while countering fake news and misinformation.