Helping fight COVID-19 through better comms

I’ve been burning the midnight oil in the past week trying to help set up communication channels for the part of the city where I live. So in a slight departure for this blog, I thought that today I’d document what we’ve been doing and some things we’ve learned, in case it helps anyone else. In this unprecedented situation, good communications will save lives, and those of you who have marketing responsibilities in your working life may be able to use them socially. Many of you I’m sure already are.

We’re lucky in our area that we already have a successful ‘neighbourhood association’ which covers about 5,000 homes, an area larger than a typical residents association but still much smaller than the local city council is having to cope with. It’s too large to organise specific help for vulnerable individuals, but too small to offer meaningful resources. So we decided what we could do best is to let people know what’s going on locally, with the aim of encouraging people to help each other. And we think it’s working.

Where did we start?

Our assets include a clear-thinking and determined chairperson, an existing small group of volunteers already communicating daily (via Slack), and recognised information channels including a quarterly advertising-funded magazine. We have a decent-sized email list, but it only reaches about 10% of the area, so old-fashioned leafleting is always going to be our main outlet. We have a particularly high proportion of elderly residents, many without internet access.

Our initial thought was to get out a message telling everyone that ‘the community is here for you’. Encouraging people to help each other at a micro-local level (i.e. their immediate neighbours) seems to be the best thing we can do. We joined with our local churches to do this, because we thought their name on the leaflet would confer an added degree of seriousness and respectability. A couple of us produced a four-page A5 leaflet (a size easy to push through letterboxes) using Adobe InDesign. Its main aim was to provide small ‘happy to help’ notes that people could give to those living nearby, ensuring everyone knew where they could get assistance, along with a record of neighbours’ telephone numbers and email addresses.

The leaflet was printed and delivered in under 48 hours by Solopress in Southend, with 5,000 copies costing just over £100. We’re confident that donations from residents will cover any costs – we’ll worry about that later. We bundled them up into packs of 25 to 100 based on streets (one of our local political parties offered to help with that list, but the churches had lists and OpenStreetMap – which shows house numbers – filled in the gaps). An appeal through social media got enough members of the public to grab leaflets for their road and deliver them: as I write, the last ones are going through letterboxes, 7 days after we first started putting the idea together.

Online information

Next we addressed our online efforts. We already had a well-used website, and decided that there’s no point in regurgitating national advice except as a bare minimum for people who really weren’t sure who to trust. Instead, we set up a single information page which an enthusiastic and knowledgeable volunteer quickly built into an amazing locally-based resource, although we were all unprepared for just how much ongoing work it would require from her. Other areas are now using it as a template.

We also replaced our weekly local ‘What’s On’ email with a daily update email. From a circulation of 700, individual items in it are getting up to 150 unique clickthroughs (and typically 25 to 75), so it’s clearly doing its job. Our Slack group feeds through items to include, and we believe many people are passing on the information through their ultra-local networks, whether by social media, word of mouth or printouts on pinboards in blocks of flats.

All of this is of course publicised on a Facebook page.

Building on our efforts

What next? We’re probably going to do a more extensive publication (an ’emergency edition’ of our quarterly magazine). We think this will take 14 days from inception to finished delivery by volunteers, which is remarkably fast, but clearly not quick enough for much of the content we’d like to put in. So the content will have to be more about ‘what you can do to help’ and continue to encourage people to help their neighbours.

I’ve no idea if that’s given you any ideas for your own area’s efforts, or inspired you to do something, but I found it to offer some gentle catharsis, so thanks for reading this far. Stay safe.

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