Agenda item

Communications Strategy 2021-24

Minutes:

The Strategic Lead Communications introduced the report and stated that it outlined how the Council’s communications would align over the next three years, and was designed to build on the work previously undertaken by the Communications Strategy 2017-20. She explained that the new strategy focussed on brand recognition that would enhance the Thurrock narrative, as well as providing a strategic approach that aligned with Thurrock’s corporate priorities. She summarised and stated that the strategy would also provide a more modern communications service, including increased use of direct digital communications tools.

Councillor Kent thanked officers for their report and questioned if the Local Government Association health check recommendations had been included in the strategy. He gave the example of an external workshop between Members and officers; a new sign-off process to reduce the number of people and timeframes involved; new media briefings rather than press releases; and a priority triage system for communication enquiries. He also queried if the communications team had introduced a new system to cut out errors in press releases, as recommended by the Local Government Association. He summarised and asked if a system for including local faces in video content had also been rolled out.

The Strategic Lead Communications responded and stated that a workshop between Members, senior managers and members of the communications team had occurred in line with the Local Government Association recommendation. She added that other elements of work with local media, such as sign-off processes for queries, were operational aspects of the communications team and were therefore not included in the strategy. She explained that the team were looking into media briefings, for example utilising a hybrid briefing system, potentially both in person and online,that would allow local media to directlyask questions on key topics. She added that the communications team had also introduced a system of double proofing work to ensure errors in press releases did not occur. She mentioned that the communications team were also including residents in video content more, and gave the example of a local GP who participated in a recent COVID video, and local business owners who were currently filming for future content.

The Chair thanked the team for their hard work and felt that lots of reporting was being undertaken, but asked for more evidence and feedback on outcomes from the strategy. Councillor Collins highlighted page 25 of the agenda and questioned what positive behaviour change in the population would look like. He also queried the use of TikTok to spread the Council’s messages. Councillor Collins then highlighted page 27 of the agenda and asked if the Council offices would be reopening, which would help boost the local economy in Grays. The Strategic Lead Communications replied that communications teams in a variety of sectors regularly used behavioural science to encourage good behaviour in local residents, for example by encouraging them to recycle or not drop cigarette butts. She stated that some Council’s used footsteps leading to the nearest bins to encourage residents to dispose of waste properly, or by installing question bins for cigarette butts. She then moved on and stated that Thurrock were looking at a variety of digital channels from across the world, and whilst that included the TikTok platform, no decisions had yet been made on which channels to pursue. The Chair questioned how much money Thurrock Council had spent on pursuing the use of TikTok as a media platform and the Strategic Lead Communications responded that so far no money had been spent.

Councillor Muldowney stated that approximately 10% of the adult population did not have access to the internet, and asked how they would be included and engaged within the strategy. She felt that people who did not have access to the internet tended to be more vulnerable, such as elderly people. The Strategic Lead Communications replied that additional options were available to those residents who were not online, and these options were built into the strategy. She explained that Thurrock were moving towards a more digital communications approach, and digital messages could be passed on through community forums to people who could not access the internet. She added the Council still produced leaflets and posters, for example for information regarding sheltered housing, and that easy-to-read posters in high footfall areas were useful for communicating with residents for whom English was a second language. The Strategic Lead Communications mentioned that the communications team also regularly liaised with community groups for their support on projects, which would help people who did not have access to the internet, engage with the Council. She added that using digital channels was also a more cost effective option than printing leaflets, but for large campaigns or the council tax leaflet, printed information was utilised.

The Chair questioned how the strategy would encourage people in rural areas to engage with the Council. She also queried how the team were working to improve engagement as a whole, as currently only 35% of Thurrock residents were actively engaging. The Strategic Lead Communications responded that people in rural areas would have access to digital campaigns. She added that the figure of 35% engagement related to Thurrock Council’s newsletter, but engagement was higher for other elements of communications including campaigns. She stated that the communications team would never focus solely on digital channels, and the team would try to find the balance between digital channels and print media. Councillor Muldowney questioned what the balance currently was between digital and non-digital channels. The Strategic Lead Communications felt that the balance between digital and non-digital engagement differed from issue to issue. She stated as an example that if an issue disproportionately affected people aged over 80, the communications team would focus on print media.

Councillor Muldowney highlighted appendix two of the report and stated that although the Thurrock Thanks campaign had had a good digital reach, the proportion of those residents retweeting and clicking through the link was low. She questioned how the communications team was measuring the quality of engagement, and the proportion of people who were taking in the information. The Strategic Lead Communications replied that it was sometimes difficult to measure the level of engagement, particularly with awareness campaigns such as Thurrock Thanks. She stated that if the campaign set out a call to action, such as campaigns regarding rent, then specific engagement targets would be set. She stated that this was monitored through the number of people calling the contact centre after a specific campaign, or the number of click throughs on a link. She stated that for Thurrock’s fostering campaign, people that made enquiries were asked where they had heard about fostering and those answers were recorded. She commented that all campaigns were linked to service priorities, but there were lots of people simply passive scrolling on social media who would see content but not necessarily engage with it.

Councillor Carter asked if the recent fostering campaign had led to an increased number of fostering enquiries. The Strategic Lead Communications replied that she understood this would be discussed at the next Corporate Parenting Committee and she did not have the information to hand. She explained that the Council were currently beginning the second phase of the fostering campaign, which would highlight the need of local children, compared to the first phase which had focussed on the council tax rebate. The Chair added that it would be important for the Corporate Parenting Committee to see how many fostering enquiries had become accepted foster carers.

Councillor Snell thanked officers for their hard work on the report and felt that it would be difficult to increase active social media engagement, as the majority of social media users simply scrolled past posts. He felt that communications within Thurrock had recently improved, for example he was receiving more regular emails and saw more regular Facebook posts. He thanked officers for their work on utilising digital tools, as he felt this was the direction the world was moving in. Councillor Snell suggested that social media posts became more targeted towards certain users, and more entertaining to increase engagement. The Chair echoed Councillor Snell’s comments and felt that the communications team did lots of good work. She felt there was room for improvement in some areas, and wished to see the good communications work that was started during the pandemic continued. She expressed her concern that the Civic Offices and some libraries and hubs were still not open, and felt that this restricted vulnerable or elderly people that could not access services online.

Councillor Kent questioned the differing social media engagement figures quoted on page 24 of the report, and within the report introduction, and queried which figure was correct. He also highlighted page 5 of the report and asked what the new Statement of Intent involved. He then highlighted the recommendation from the Local Government Association listed on page 40 of the report, stating that Members felt removed from the communications team, and asked what steps were in place to improve this. Councillor Kent also outlined page 42 of the report which stated that the time taken to answer local media questions needed to be improved, as only 50% of queries were answered in target time. He asked how the strategy responded to these issues. The Strategic Lead Communications replied that the figure on page 24 was different from the report introduction, as the first figure discussed which people received their information from the Council, and the second figure related to the number of people who saw the Council’s content. She explained that approximately 65,000 people saw Thurrock’s post related to COVID and these included people who did not follow Thurrock on social media, due to the number of people sharing and commenting on the post. She added that Thurrock also used boosted posts, which ensured Thurrock Council posts appeared on people’s timelines even if they did not follow the Council’s page. She moved on and stated that the team would be introducing a monthly evaluation report for Members to ensure they were kept up to date on the work of the communications team. She explained that this would be uploaded to the Council’s intranet page, but had not yet been started. Councillor Kent queried if Members could access the intranet from home, and the Strategic Lead Communications replied that she would look into this.

The Strategic Lead Communications added that new internal processes had been introduced to ensure good communication between Thurrock Council and the local media. She mentioned that local media often reported on Thurrock press releases and on positive news stories from the Council. She stated that the team worked hard to answer local media questions but some questions did not have an answer. The Director of Strategy, Engagement and Growth added that the Statement of Intent was a new piece of work being started that would outline the tangible outcomes of investment and regeneration within the borough by 2030, including new job opportunities and upskilling. She explained that as this was a new piece of work, it was still in the development phase but would be brought back to Committee as part of the process. Councillor Kent expressed concern that Members had not heard of this piece of work until the meeting. He also queried if local media partners had been included in the development of the strategy. The Strategic Lead Communications replied that local media partners had been emailed inviting them to share and take part in the survey which informed the strategy development. The Director of Strategy, Engagement and Growth added that as the recommendations from the Local Government Association health check had been operational, these had not been included in the Communications Strategy.

Councillor Kent thanked officers for their work on the report and stated that whilst he understood the Communications Strategy needed to work for a variety of people, on a variety of platforms, he had hoped to see more engagement with the local media. He stated that committee members had been contacted by one local media editor and he had sought the views of another. Both felt that the partnership between Thurrock Council and themselves could be improved, and a better balance could be struck. He felt that the Communications Strategy needed to look at local media outlets as partners, and be given the help to grow as local businesses. The Director of Strategy, Engagement and Growth stated that local media had an important role to play in conveying information to local residents, and this had been supported by independent research outlining where residents received their news. She explained that day to day processes relating to  the local media had not been included in the Communications Strategy, as this fell into the operational remit of the communications team. She added that the Council and local media outlets worked together on a daily basis, and new media briefings would help to improve the relationship. She stated that the Local Government Association health check had been presented in full to the Committee, and the majority of comments had been positive, particularly surrounding Thurrock’s COVID response. She acknowledged that there was still some work to do, but Thurrock worked well with local, national and trade newspapers on a regular basis.

Councillor Muldowney queried how the impact of the strategy would be measured. She felt that residents needed to have direct contact with the Council, and this could only be undertaken once the Civic Offices had been reopened. She also wished to see the monthly evaluation report emailed directly to Members for the feedback, rather than being posted on the intranet.

RESOLVED: That the Committee:

1. Commented on the proposed Communications Strategy 2021-24 as the principle policy document for communication with residents, businesses, stakeholders and staff.

Supporting documents: