The eye of the storm – communicating during the coronavirus crisis
Meet Esther Epstein. She’s armed with the perfect skills to be working in communications; chatty, organised and thrives under pressure. But she’s feeling that pressure at the moment; the pandemic has been a testing time for council communications teams. The way in which councils have been so quick to respond and provide up to date information as people turn to their councils for reassurance is truly remarkable and a credit to the sector as a whole.
Esther says she’s never been busier in her 17 years with Lichfield District Council. She’s stepped in as the interim manager, after the communications manager left just before the pandemic. “It really was the eye of the storm when the pandemic hit,” says Esther. Rather than panic Esther calmly set about doing what was needed, starting with creating a coronavirus section on the website. She worked through all the information, organising it into categories on the front page, setting it out clearly into council services affected; business advice and support; community support; public health information and council tax support. She worked closely with her colleagues across the council and IT to get the section up and running quickly.
We launched a new emergency shopping service and relief fund
The council partnered up Central England Co-operative to launch an emergency shopping service that over six weeks has delivered to over 500 vulnerable people, with environmental health officers making the deliveries. Esther worked with the PR team from Central England Co-op on the press release and social media messaging. The information was added online and a tag with information about the service was place on every bin across the district to make sure residents knew how to access it.
The council also launched a coronavirus relief fund, to raise money for community groups who are supporting the covid-19 response. The call for donations generated more than £24,500 and now Esther is promoting the opening up of the fund to voluntary groups across the district.
As well as manage the coronavirus website section, keeping it updated and linked to latest Government advice, Esther has been seeing far more people engaging in the council’s social media channels like Twitter and Facebook. She says, “We’ve definitely seen a rise in appreciation for the council – people are saying some really lovely things about us on social media, especially our front line workers, like our grounds maintenance teams. We’ve had children doing drawings and thank you messages for our bin crews, it’s been really touching. People can see we are working incredibly hard to support them and it is nice that this is being recognised.”
Some of the regular communications Esther puts together is now on hold; there’s no need for a programme of events in the parks or leisure activities to promote as they have been cancelled for the time being, there’s no special newsletters for councillors, or separate ones for staff.
We recognised the lockdown affects employees differently
Since the pandemic hit there has been far more direct communications from the top. So, Esther is supporting her Chief Executive, Diane Tilley, to communicate directly with all staff and councillors at least twice a week. These are emails to everyone, sharing news from teams and showing how the council is supporting residents as a whole. There is a strong focus on how staff can access health and wellbeing services too, recognising the lockdown affects employees very differently, not least with many people working from home, which is incredibly different to the busy office environment.
As far as how Esther has coped with the lockdown herself she says, “I am oddly comfortable. I’m a single mum so it’s just me and my 11-year-old son Henry – and our cat. We share the dining room table to work at and do Joe Wicks everyday. I do miss office life though and the people – and the walk past Lichfield Cathedral on my way to work.”
I’ve always wanted to work in communications
Esther has always wanted to work in communications, ever since she did work experience at the local paper. She did an English degree and loves to write. She enjoys how fast paced it is and that no two days are the same, even when that comes to responding to controversial issues.
That’s the thing about communications; you have a license to delve into everything, especially if it’s about the council’s reputation. The pandemic has certainly proved the worth of communications and it’s reminded Esther how much she loves her job – even if she’s missing the hustle and bustle of office life.