Putting our senior leaders in a position to answer difficult questions sounds risky enough to make the most seasoned comms pros quake in their boots…
But, if organisations are to come good on their values of being ‘people centred’, ‘accountable’ or ‘transparent’, they need to walk the talk.
These values are often referenced in communications, particularly in public service, but how can we put them into practice?
In my experience of leading public health communications throughout the pandemic for a local authority, it seemed that voluntarily offering information to communities at an otherwise uncertain time was and continues to be key to maintaining relationships.
One year ago (October 2020), I put our director of public health in the hot-seat by managing a fortnightly Q&A live on our Facebook feed all about Covid-19. It was a new approach and one we hadn’t explored before so of course, it was nerve-wracking.
Here, I reflect on the last 12 months.
The decision to host the Q&A followed the weekly publication of our vaccination statistics and Covid-19 tracker on the council website, which includes local rates of infection, how these figures compare to neighbours, school cases, local R number and more.
Offering this information publicly was a move valued by our residents. They needed access to reliable, trustworthy sources and our intelligence teams have been working hard to deliver that. It also proved a great resource for journalists in response to high-volumes of press requests.
This positive reaction encouraged us to go a step further. To explain the information in the tracker and to answer specific questions about government guidance, we put an expert in the living rooms of our audience.
I know – using spokespeople is already an industry-wide approach – but this is different because we’re giving residents a platform to ask anything they like in relation to Covid-19 and don’t shy away from the answers.
How often do residents have a direct line to a senior officer? The Q&A’s make it easy and accessible. No trawling through the website to find email addresses and hoping for a response. The Q&A is an immediate, two-way conversation.
Sometimes, our DPH doesn’t have the answers and that’s ok. She is upfront about that and promises to take the questions offline. The answers are then put on our website or given direct to the resident at a later date.
Sometimes, questions are too medical specific so we direct these people to their GPs.
Of course, we come up against some negative comments, particularly relating to the vaccine and sending children back to school but anybody considering this approach should expect an element of this because there’s no way any central decision will be agreeable to absolutely everyone. It’s how you respond that’s important.
Pre-empt these questions in advance and use the opportunity to squash misinformation. Don’t be afraid to signpost to alternative information sources either. In addition to our DPH’s valuable knowledge, we link to NHS, gov.uk and JCVI sources in the comments.
After a while, we diversified the sessions and began to invite other local experts to discuss specific topics.
When the vaccination programme was rolled out, our DPH led the session with our CCG chair, when schools reopened, our assistant director for education joined her and we also hosted a session on mental wellbeing with a regional lead.
Overall, the sessions have been well received with many people thanking us in the comments and taking the time to tell us about their positive experiences at the local vaccine centres.
As the facilitator, I make it my responsibility to answer some of the less complex questions by replying to people directly and sharing links to national guidance. This frees up time so our DPH can answer more questions.
So, what have we learned?
- By publishing the Covid-19 tracker in advance, our DPH is accountable about how the information is collated and what it means locally.
- People trust people. Our DPH is visible and accessible, which builds and maintains relationships.
- Offering information and expertise outright helps with transparency.
What are my top tips?
- Do the Q&A outside of working hours and stick to the same routine. We go live at 6pm every other Thursday and we limit the session to 30 minutes. Any questions unanswered are collated and either responded to the next day or published on the website.
- Don’t get hung up on viewer figures. In the early days our sessions had anywhere from 100-200 people watching live. That’s reduced over time but the questions are still coming through, which shows me the sessions are still valuable. Don’t forget, live videos stay on your Facebook feed until you delete them, so the live viewings may not be mega high but people can share and refer back.
- Give your spokesperson a loose script. It’s good for them to have some appropriate topics to talk about while people are tuning in. For example, our DPH goes through the local picture for the first 10 minutes to give people chance to type their questions. It reduces the risk of awkward silences!
- Finally, in the instance that there is a silence waiting for questions, make sure your spokesperson has back-up information to go through to fill the space.
So, rather than simply sharing information with your press contacts or updating your website, think differently about how you can bring this information direct to your audience.
Not only does our DPH enjoy delivering the sessions but it boosts credibility and from a media relations perspective, it helps you to field inquiries by encouraging journalists to submit questions too.
We plan to evolve the Q&A as we learn to live with Covid-19. At the moment, they’ll remain focused on the pandemic but in the future, we hope to cover different public health work-streams and invite more speakers to join in.
Feel free to DM me over on Twitter if you want to find out more!
Click here to view the Covid-19 tracker