Communications: getting the message out to the right people at the right time
A well designed communications strategy sets out how communications can support the delivery of an organisation’s objectives. It provides a structured approach to setting clear communications objectives, message development and resource allocation to build relationships with and provide information to targeted audiences.
Here we look at how local authorities and housing associations that we visited have used different approaches and learnt from their experiences to devise and implement effective and targeted welfare reform communications to their staff, residents and local stakeholders.
Local authorities and housing associations we visited used a variety of channels to provide information to their residents, including through other organisations and community groups. They also provided information and training to front line workers to help them identify people affected, provide accurate information, and know where to signpost people for more specialist advice.Taking account of the specific needs of the audience when devising appropriate communications is key.
Bristol City Council provides detailed communications to advice agencies in the city about their discretionary housing payment (DHP) policy. This includes a bi-monthly newsletter with details of their budget, spend and applications. They also provide detailed, but accessible benefits briefings, which are delivered free to all households in the city. These explain the changes to benefits and provide information on how to apply for DHPs and the Crisis and Prevention Fund (their local social welfare scheme).
AmicusHorizon stressed the importance of a three pronged approach to their communications on benefit changes:
- To all residents, they provided general information about welfare reform to raise awareness.
- To those who were known to be affected by the benefit cap and under occupation they provided specific information about the impact of changes, options to mitigate this, and sources of further support.
- To those who were not affected they provided clarification and reassurance.
For all their residents, they used a multi-channel approach to create a suite of information products, including:
- 13 different leaflets
- a welfare reform DVD
- five information films
- regular Facebook updates
- regular 'Hot off the Press' news updates on the benefits section of their website
- a quarterly benefits newsletter
- text messages to residents
They also held over 100 Estate Action Days giving advice and support on welfare reform changes such as under occupation and the benefit cap. They have also held 12 mutual exchange events where tenants can meet other people who want to move, with a view to swapping homes.
For affected residents, they sent out individual letters, and made phone calls and visits to inform them of the changes and to discuss options and support. Over 2,000 face-to-face visits were carried out between the summer of 2012 and April 2013 to get the message out on welfare reform changes. The opening hours of their income and financial inclusion telephone advice line were increased to cover evening and Saturday mornings.
For residents known to be unaffected, communication was more reactive. The general awareness-raising communications sent to all residents included information about who would not be affected, but where people were concerned and contacted AmicusHorizon, they focused on providing reassurance and clarification of the changes.
Merlin Housing Society similarly held large awareness raising events and provided intensive targeted communications to tenants affected. They hosted a travelling roadshow across South Gloucestershire, with 400 attending in the first year. This involved visiting a number of shopping centres and supermarkets with the council and local debt advice charities. They held three mutual exchange events for which they produced attractive estate agent style property sheets, achieving an 80% increase in homeswap applications. Despite their geographically dispersed homes, they visited all the 700 tenants they expected to be affected, wrote offering appointments to those not in and sent text messages to those they hadn’t heard back from.
Thames Valley Housing Association (TVH) manages a dispersed stock of properties, covering almost 40 different local authority areas. Their communications challenge was to deliver awareness raising activities cost effectively whilst targeting individual support for more vulnerable tenants. They achieved this by creating the 'hub', a dedicated website containing information for tenants on what their options are, such as support into employment or taking in a lodger. The hub also contains information about and links to other support services, listed by area and by topic. It is publicly available and so can be used by other housing associations and voluntary organisations as well as tenants of TVH.
Halton Housing first published their infographic film on welfare reform on YouTube and Facebook in June 2012. The film’s easy-to-follow style for communicating the changes meant it was quickly a model for other organisations to adopt and now has had 10,500 viewings. They also developed an online toolkit called Lifekit, which provides residents with information on a range of issues including applying for employment, downsizing, switching utilities and budgeting.
Colchester Borough Council and Colchester Borough Homes’ used various channels to communicate the benefit changes to their residents, to other local organisations and to other teams and departments within the council and Colchester Borough Homes.
The London Borough of Enfield [ 170 kb] identified that certain communities were disproportionately affected by the changes, and used community groups to host information events.