Best in-house team: corporate communications
Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service
Like so many other corporate communications departments, the team at Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) spent 2020 focused on Covid. They played a major role in educating prisoners and keeping them safe: Covid deaths in British prisons were 90 per cent below the projections suggested by Public Health England.
But while Covid remained central to its work in 2021, the year brought new challenges – including a change programme which saw more than 7,000 new staff join HMPPS on a single day in June.
Keeping prisoners safe when social distancing is difficult posed its own problems, but as the world started to open up, this brought a new challenge. Prisons needed strict restrictions to remain in place, particularly as audience insight, conveyed through daily data, revealed high levels of vaccine hesitancy among specific communities,
The comms team had to work to change behaviours. Partnering with a neurodiversity charity, elders in Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and Muslim leaders, the team was able to communicate with its target audiences authentically through channels and voices that they trusted. It created animations for low-literacy prisoners, secured slots on Prison Radio for Imams and provided creative content to share via Friday prayers in prisons with low vaccination uptake.
With restrictions still in place, communications played a vital role in explaining why the decision had been taken and to demonstrate its legitimacy to prisoners, their families and vocal lobby groups. Accurate and timely information about availability of visiting opportunities for prisoners’ families and friends was provided, even though the situation was fluid and changing every day.
In May, the team produced 120 ‘prison pages’ on Gov.UK with localised information; these attracted more than 1.7 million visitors. Scripts for visit booking hotlines were regularly updated and templates were created, enabling individual prisons to tailor information for local channels.
Regular Q&A sessions with charity partners were also held to explain the situation, and social media was used to convey sympathetic messages to distressed families. By providing easy-to-access information and advice on families’ go to channels, the team has improved the support available.
In June, following the privatisation of probation services, more than 7,000 staff joined the department. The team built a new online platform Welcome Hub, with bright new branding, which provided all the information necessary to help people start their new roles. This was supplemented by senior leader blogs, a social media campaign and ministerially led ‘welcome’ events for more than 5,000 people.
Keeping colleagues and the leadership connected is a major part of the team’s work, which is no mean feat for an organisation spread across more than 500 sites in England and Wales with prison officers, who are unable to bring mobile phones into their working environment, accessing the intranet for less than five minutes per day.
The HMPPS comms team led 125 national staff events on multiple platforms. But it also organised weekly phone calls between HQ leaders and prison governors, which were an invaluable channel to share Covid information and also land essential information about well-being initiatives, diversity and inclusion objectives and learning and development opportunities.
By bringing in external speakers for its CEO monthly calls, the team brought the ministry’s organisational strategy to life for an operational audience. It also held all-staff meetings on Microsoft Teams, but then repeated them via telephone conferencing to allow everybody to join in. A virtual conference brought 300 senior leaders together to network and hear speakers, such as chairman of Marks & Spencer Archie Norman and Sir Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, share their experiences of leading organisations after a crisis. The online event was rated highly by 96 per cent of attendees while 91 per cent felt more motivated as a result.
At the time of its submission (September 2021), the comms team was managing the third wave of Covid but was confident that it had ‘grit, determination and creativity to not only deliver this, but to achieve much more’.