Effective community engagement comes naturally to Coventry. Its long history of welcoming diverse communities to settle and flourish means there’s a sense of pride and belonging in neighbourhoods that – despite challenges around deprivation and inequalities – has led to a strong network of groups across the city that work together to tackle challenges.
In the summer, Coventry City Council launched a community-led response to communications and messaging around Covid-19 that’s seen the development of more than 200 community champions across the city, sharing messages in the way they know works for their communities and neighbourhoods and providing feedback and intelligence about how it really feels on the ground in these extraordinary times.
Setting it up
In July, a call out to recruit community messengers, as they’re called in Coventry, was made through existing faith, voluntary and community networks in the city and a series of webinars were held to provide initial advice and training.
Young people were targeted through a partnership with The Positive Youth Foundation, a charity that supports young people in the Coventry area, and a series of focus groups held with young people and the council’s communications team helped the development of specific messaging for young people, including a video.
The work has been led by Andrea Buckley, Service Manager Community Resilience and Engagement in the council’s public health team.
How it works
A weekly news update (with urgent updates in between if they’re needed) is emailed to messengers to share with their networks and weekly webinars update messengers and provide a forum for sharing and discussions.
“The email update is pretty long and detailed,” said Andrea. “But messengers find that useful – we don’t tell them which bits to share, they pick and choose the items they want.
“One messenger does a weekly email for her neighbours in her street and she rewrites the information we provide into her style. She says she needs to think about what we’re saying before she sends it on.”
The community messengers have actively involved friends and family in their work, recruiting messengers themselves to share communications.
“That’s great,” said Andrea. “I don’t know the exact number of messengers – it’s more than 200 - due to people recruiting their friends and colleagues, I don’t try to control it, I am happy it has taken a life of its own as people take ownership as they work with us.”
Some messengers have become powerful advocates for public health. “One has started a campaign around wearing face covering on buses – she talks to the bus drivers every day about how it’s going and the need to wear a mask and she’s writing to bus companies to make sure they’re doing the right thing.”
And the network provides valuable feedback about what’s really going on in neighbourhoods.
“They tell us about the latest false news and disinformation that’s being shared on social media on things like the vaccine. It’s stuff that we wouldn’t see in our social media feeds and it helps us make sure we’re myth-busting when we need to,” said Andrea.
When a walk-in test centre was set up in Foleshill, a ward with high levels of deprivation – it led to a backlash from the community. “They thought we were stigmatising them by putting the centre there, although the decision to make it a walk-in test centre was because of low levels of car ownership there. We hadn’t explained why we’d made the decision, but the feedback helped us address the problem and to explain fully”
Working with community and faith groups
Alongside the messengers network voluntary and community groups are working with the council to share communications. Webinars to brief community centres and places of worship are held when there’s a change in guidance (such as when Coventry went into tier 2) and Andrea’s team regularly provides phone advice as well as sending the weekly update email to voluntary and community sector groups.
“This work is just as important as our engagement with community messengers,” said Andrea. “Community centres and places of worship are supporting people through these difficult times by providing social supermarkets and other crisis support and they’re an excellent way to get stay safe messages out as they are hubs in their communities.
“And they’ve begun to link up with each other - they’ve seen the value of working together and now want more.
“The true measure of success for me is that this is more than engagement. Our community messengers and the community and voluntary groups are not simply passing on messages. They are actively complaining to big business where they see failures, recruiting people in the network to help and the voluntary and community groups are peer supporting each other as well as working collectively with us. And these benefits will continue long after the pandemic is over.”
Tops tips for community engagement success
- Provide as much detailed information as you can, but let people choose the information they want to share in their own ways
- Make senior leaders visible, so people know their work is valued – Liz Gaulton, Coventry’s Director of Public Health, finds time to attend most webinars to talk to community messengers
- Share information with established hubs in neighbourhoods like community and faith centres
- Provide effective, clear communications collateral for communities to share via the social media channels they use
- Listen and act on the valuable feedback you’re getting from communities
- Support communities to tell their stories in their own words – like the videos produced by young people and the community messengers