Encouraging openness image

Accountability, visibility and transparency 

Three words we’re used to hearing in public service but what do they mean in practice when it comes to PR in a Covid-19 world? 

Wigan Council’s PR team has adopted this approach throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, recognising that during times of crisis people need access to reliable, trustworthy and credible news sources to avoid mass panic and confusion.

The team undertook training with the EPC college a year before the pandemic, which helped us to develop our borough-wide emergency communications strategy – setting out how we would respond to any disaster. This training has proved instrumental during the last 12 months. When we left the office last year, we were armed with copies of our strategy, feeling confident that we had a plan.

Armed with copies of our strategy, we felt confident we had a plan.

During the training we were advised to use the appropriate spokesperson according to the incident. In this case, a health pandemic meant our Director for Public Health, Professor Kate Ardern, would play a lead role in our response. In the last 12 months, Kate has been in demand, as a representative for Greater Manchester civil contingency and locally as our Public Health Director. Her knowledge and ability to deal with these interviews with ease and confidence has meant that she’s become a familiar face and voice in the local discussion.  

We found that voluntarily offering information to communities at an otherwise uncertain time, was and continues to be key to maintaining relationships and trust with the people we serve. 

Kate has talked about the pandemic on a national, regional and local level and was even featured in the Financial Times’ ‘Women of the Year’ list in 2020 as a result of her visible, transparent approach with communities. 

Encouraging openness

One way we encourage this openness in Wigan is through holding a fortnightly Question & Answers (Q&As) session live on Facebook with Kate and publishing a weekly Covid-19 tracker. The tracker includes updates on new rates of infection, the differentiation between wards and information about which schools have seen cases that week.  

The Question & Answers (Q&As) are run after working hours to reach more people. The sessions are kept short – no longer than 30 minutes – to keep viewers engaged. 

We publish the tracker first, which not only helps to field press enquiries, but gives residents the opportunity to ask Kate questions at the Q&A about the figures it displays.  

The session also enables Kate to give updates on restriction changes and vaccination figures locally.

Engagement

Wigan Council Facebook

We found that between 100 and 200 people watched live during October 2020 when the Q&A started, and by February 2021, we had reached more than 100,000* Facebook accounts. 

Wigan Council Facebook screenshot of Professor Kate Ardern answering coronavirus Q&As

After a while, we diversified the Q&A and began to invite other local experts to discuss specific topics.

When the vaccination programme was rolled out, Kate led the session with our Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG) chair. She was joined by our assistant director for education when the schools opened. 

Overall, the sessions have been well received with many people thanking Kate in the comments and taking the time to tell us about their positive experiences at the local vaccine centres.  

Live quizzing

It can be daunting to put your spokesperson up for live quizzing and I will admit, as the nominated person to facilitate and manage these sessions, I was nervous too.  

We had never done anything like this previously, but I quickly realised that the premise was similar to a broadcast interview and that we actually have more oversight because we have the ability to monitor comments live.  

As the facilitator, I make it my responsibility to answer some of the less complex questions by replying to the comments directly and sharing links to national guidance. This frees up time so Kate can answer more questions.  

Sometimes, Kate doesn’t have the answers straight away but that’s ok. We simply tell the resident that we will take the question offline to find out more information. Then, we either make contact directly or publish some of the questions we couldn’t or didn’t have time to answer on our website and link to them at a later date.  

Learnings from our Q&A approach

So, to summarise, how does our Q&A specifically embody accountability, visibility and transparency? 

  • By publishing the Covid-19 tracker in advance of the session, Kate is able to take specific questions. She is accountable about how the information is collated and what it means locally. 
  • People trust people. Kate needs to be visible and accessible to the people she serves in order to build and maintain relationships.  
  • Offering information and expertise outright helps with transparency between the local authority and communities.  

So, rather than just sharing information with your local and regional press or updating your website, think differently about how you can bring this information directly to your audience by putting an expert in their living room. 

Not only does Kate enjoy delivering the sessions but it boosts credibility and from a media relations perspective. It helps you to field enquiries by encouraging journalists to submit questions too.  

N.B. *Stats are approximate and are taken from Facebook insights around 13 hours after each session ended. It is possible that we reached the same account more than once.  

Thanks to Natasha Calder, CIPR LPS Committee Member and Media Officer, Wigan Council, for writing this article. Thank you to @webcommsat for editing and website work.