Public Relations

How Dudley’s comms team battled to get its R rate down

Dudley Borough Metropolitan Council
Shortlisted: Best in-house comms team - public sector
CovidComms Awards 2020

Phil Parker, head of communications and public affairs at Dudley Borough Metropolitan Council, has been in local government communications for more than 15 years, but nothing prepared him for the pace of the pandemic.

The sheer quantity and quality of work has been ‘unprecedented’, he says. ‘We’ve been blooming busy [during my time in comms] through austerity and other different measures, but this has just been another level. The pace of change has been absolutely exceptional.’

He adds: ‘When you look at all the past dramas that we’ve had within Dudley Borough, including visits from the English Defence League, where you really do lock down and comms becomes central, and compare them to this… there is no comparison.’

Dudley is a metropolitan borough based in the West Midlands, in the heart of England’s Black Country. Parker likens it to Little Britain – ‘it’s got a little bit of everything’ – multicultural communities, affluent areas and deprived regions.

It was also among the first areas in the country to register cases of coronavirus and, in March 2020, Black Country death rates were among the highest in the country. National media headlines began to speculate that the area was the epicentre of Covid-19.

This prompted the comms team to embark on a ‘relentless’ multi-channel communications strategy to keep residents informed about how to stay safe or, as they dubbed it, ‘keeping the C-rate up to get the R-rate down’ while simultaneously promoting changes to council services.

Parker’s team first identified key target groups that perhaps were unfamiliar with the government’s advice. He explains: ‘We have our BAME communities, some can be harder to reach groups because English is not always their first language or they actually don’t speak English, which means that a translation job is needed on all materials.

‘The target group that we identified as our most vulnerable was also a demographic that we probably were unaware of before Coronavirus – shielding people.’ Public health intelligence played a role in helping the council identify this group who then needed to receive direct communications, which involved more specialist messaging than the broader message for most residents, which typically focused on the government’s advice.

‘The other target group were businesses. Dudley has a disproportionately high number of SMEs that needed information about what they could apply for in terms of grants and how they could furlough staff, and so on,’ adds Parker. ‘So, we had direct communications specifically targeted at the business community.’

The media remains one of Dudley’s most powerful and effective ways to get important messages out to the public. Within six months from the date of lockdown, Dudley’s comms teams had issued more than 180 news releases specifically relating to Covid-19, which generated more than 700 articles in local and regional media. More than 95 per cent of that coverage was deemed to have a positive or neutral effect on the council’s reputation.

‘People crave local messaging, so they’ve really come into their own. All our local media channels have been absolutely key,’ explains Parker. ‘We’ve got the Express and Star, a large, regional newspaper, which is Wolverhampton-based, and covers all the region, and Newsquest, which is a free weekly publication.’

Parker explains that the key primary message in each news release would repeat the government’s latest primary message, but the theme of each release might focus on its service impact. ‘So, we might be saying Unfortunately, our parks are now closed or the Zumba class at the leisure centre is not taking place, which are Covid-related, because everything became Covid-related really. But the releases also repeated those primary messages about people needing to follow whatever restrictions have been put in place – to look after themselves and their loved ones,’ adds Parker. ‘The journalists have their integrity about how they report the news, but they have ensured that our residents see the key public information. They have played a massive part in supporting the whole effort.’

I also think that posters are reassuring to our local elected members, who are trying to serve their communities as best they can. It’s tangible evidence that comms is happening. The comms is there

Its own newspaper Your Borough. Your Home, which is usually distributed to 125,000 households, also ramped up production. Historically produced quarterly with messages aligned to the council’s priorities and key campaigns, Dudley’s comms team had produced three between March and November, the first within days of the news of a pandemic. ‘As well as the quarterly slots, we added a Coronavirus special early on. It didn’t carry any advertising, but was designed to get those key messages out,’ explains Parker. It also carried a special supplement for council tenants.

The 16-page publication went to 175,000 households with an additional 6,000 copies distributed to supermarkets for customers to pick up. Each edition is also shared extensively online, and the Coronavirus special was delivered to almost 40,000 email addresses, half of whom opened the message. The council’s website also carries nine translations of the publication, including Arabic, Gujarati and Romanian. Another newspaper was sent at the end of November. ‘It’s delivered by Royal Mail, it’s through the door. It’s another way of getting directly into the homes of local people, who are craving information from their local councils,’ he adds.

The comms team also turned to local radio stations, and particularly stations for ethnic minority groups broadcasting in other languages. ‘We have worked in partnership with Black Country Radio, which is a community radio station serving Dudley and the broader Black Country, on many issues. They’ve been a key channel for us,’ says Parker. ‘There’s also a Birmingham-based Afro-Caribbean radio station, where we paid for advertising communications, as well.’

But, like so many organisations, Dudley has also deployed posters and face-to-face communications. ‘I have 40 full time employees as we’ve got a wider remit than just comms and public affairs. We also look after the mayoral engagements. I have an events team and a graphics design team, which means all our localised campaigning is done in-house,’ he says.

‘But I’ve had comms officers out putting up signs against fencing [for a new test centre, say] or putting posters in our poster cases. Those same officers went out and visited businesses in the high street as it started to reopen [in the summer 2020] to make sure they had the right precautions. Now, traditionally, that wouldn’t be an office-based communications officer’s job, but this has been about going above and beyond. It’s been an absolute commitment to the cause. It’s all hands to the pump.’

Dudley has also used highway messaging. ‘We’re using the big highway digital signs, that have limited space, to share key Covid messages. We’re in lockdown and we need people who are out on the road to know that, unless their journey is essential, they should be heading home. There is nothing quite like the traditional physical form of a poster,’ says Parker. ‘I also think that posters are reassuring to our local elected members, who are trying to serve their communities as best they can. It’s tangible evidence that comms is happening. The comms is there.’

What are we here for if we can’t do stuff that also gets communities to come together?

But while Parker concedes that while traditional media played a huge role in Dudley’s communications strategy, it also ‘can’t not move with the times and not do digital’. He adds: ‘I think over the years, it has been a massive learning curve for all organisations, but certainly for local councils, to communicate via social media because it’s informal. We’re still learning but we do use it as a key channel.’

The council created #DudleyStaysHome which was used to share help and advice on staying safe and things to do during the lockdown. Partners like West Midlands Police also used the hashtag which reached more than 516,000 accounts, while residents shared tweets about their home baking or other lockdown activities.

Within six months, @Dudleymbc, which has more than 18,000 followers, had issued 1,172 tweets resulting in 1.9 million impressions, 4,210 likes and 5,200 links clicked. Its 979 Facebook posts generated almost 5.9 million impressions and 314,388 engagements.

When the three-tier system to control the coronavirus was announced in October, Dudley was the only West Midlands conurbation to stay in Tier 1. It was, Parker believes, the result of a concerted effort by Dudley’s public health officials, council staff and communications. ‘We put restrictions in place to protect people’s health. It shouldn’t be perceived as a competition to stay in a different tier from our neighbours, but a reflection of where our rates were,’ adds Parker. But equally, residents complain if they feel their council is not being proactive, particularly on such an important issue as the pandemic. ‘With coronavirus, there was actually a need and a desire to know more, and I think our figures showed that we were putting out information so that they could find what they needed.’

But when infection numbers started to pick up, and there were rumours that Dudley would move into the more restrictive Tier 2 level ‘it was all hands to the pump to try and get all the multichannel approach sorted – our media relations, our digital side and targeting our most vulnerable and hard to reach groups.’

The communications highlighted the additional restrictions imposed by a Tier 2 lockdown. ‘All this takes place over a couple of days. We get it done. And on Thursday afternoon [29 October], Public Health England makes the announcement that Dudley is in Tier 2,’ says Parker.

But two days later, on 31 October, prime minister Boris Johnson announced that England was abandoning the tier structure and instead would go into a second, temporary lockdown – starting on 5 November – Bonfire Night. ‘It was literally just wipe the slate clean and we go again. It’s that relentless level of change,’ he adds. ‘We’re all back online over the weekend. The spirit of the comms staff at Dudley Council has just been phenomenal, honestly. People are dealing with their own personal challenges, but they focus on the job in hand. It’s been inspiring.’

Johnson’s announcement also had other implications for the team. For more than 40 years, Dudley Council has hosted a firework display at Himley Hall and Park, an 18th century stately home set in 180 acres of Capability Brown landscaped gardens, which it owns. The event is attended by 25,000 people and comes under the communications department’s remit.

‘Normally, the event is a big stress but instead of calling it quits, we did a firework display that everybody could see from their doorsteps. We had six launch sites from high points across the borough that people would be able to see,’ explains Parker. ‘It was billed as a thank you to front line workers in the NHS and it went down superbly. Our social media engagement that night was huge. We had 45,000 engagements, social shares and retweets on the night.

‘It’s not for everyone – we know that – so it’s risky. But we received many formal compliments in the days that followed. I think the timing felt right for people to thank their local council for doing something that year to put a smile on their faces. Otherwise, what are we here for if we can’t do stuff that also gets communities to come together?’