Thought leadership: Ian Hudspeth on overcoming challenges to communicate during the pandemic

In the latest instalment of Fortitude’s insights on how organisations have adapted communications during COVID-19 we spoke to Cllr Ian Hudspeth, Leader of Oxfordshire County Council.

Conservative run Oxfordshire County Council has managed major shifts in how it operates to continue to deliver key services to 690,000 residents. It has also communicated constant changes in COVID-19 guidance due to the nature of virus. We discussed the key communications challenges it has faced, how it has overcome them to date and the insights gained. 

Reaching everyone

For Oxfordshire County Council making sure everyone in the county receives important communication updates throughout the pandemic has been its biggest challenge. 

Social media is a major communications tool for us, but not everyone has digital access,” said Cllr Hudspeth. At the beginning we ramped up social media presence on all platforms, but we got in touch with those who are not on digital directly.

Ensuring we reached people who are digitally excluded was a major objective and we engaged on a hyper-local level to achieve it. We spoke to community groups who know who the people are in their communities and so we got through that way. Going down to the local areas on the ground meant we could physically contact people and make sure they received support and updates. 

In the first lockdown people stopped going out buying newspapers so that was difficult. It meant we had to go more digital, but also find additional ways to engage with people who are not online.”

Managing communications

The ever-changing nature of the pandemic has meant organisations have had to communicate regular updates, as restrictions are adjusted. Rapid changes can create communications challenges. 

Cllr Hudspeth explained: When some changes are made quickly some people question the data and whether decision makers changed their minds, rather than the situation having changed, which is a subtle difference. Additionally, we sometimes have information but for confidentiality reasons we cannot share it, but there have been a lot of leaks in the UK. This rightly leads to people asking questions and you cannot address them and that can be difficult. When confidentiality is broken the whole system collapses, it is an issue locally and nationally.”

Cllr Hudspeth also said that while despite the demand for 24 hour breaking news and the ability to share information quickly via digital media it is important to get it right first time. 

There is a real hunger to be first to tell people what is going on, but sometimes you need to stand back and process the information and then present it clearly,” he said. It can be challenging with the virus as a lot of people can’t understand some of the issues and on social media some people even deny it exists. There is an issue with fake news and the challenges associated with dispelling it. I understand a lot of people are concerned and do not understand all the details and are looking for information, this means trusted sources of information are so important. There is a further issue that some people currently do not trust the trusted sources which creates additional challenges to overcome.”

Communications is vital 

In 2020 communications has become more important to organisations and Cllr Hudspeth said at Oxfordshire County Council ensuring everyone has access to it is more important than ever before. 

Communications has become more important because the information that needs to be communicated is now vital and everyone needs to have access to it,” he said. It is important that we do not exclude anyone. It would be simple to put information online, but not everyone goes online. 

This has meant going hyper-local, taking the time to understand local complexities, and putting people out into communities to talk to people directly. We have found this to be the best way of ensuring our messages are delivered to everyone.”

Digital shortfalls

While technology such as video calls and shared internal communications platforms have undoubtedly helped organisations through the pandemic, Cllr Hudspeth believes it has impacted on creativity. 

So often great ideas are conceived via informal gatherings,” he said. Virtual meetings are different and don’t allow for much general chatter or to allow time to look at something from a different angle, it is harder to do on a video call. 

During the pandemic we have lost some of our personal engagement with others, as video calls are more business like and there is less opportunity to ask people how they are on a one-to-one level. 

Overall, our staff well-being has increased because people are seeing more of their family and enjoying flexible working. Productivity his high and sickness levels are low. I think the longer-term impact on how we work will be a hybrid model in which we work two or three days a week in the office, rather than five. 

Productivity can increase when people are trusted to do the work at a time that suits everyone. But inductions and a learning culture do also require physical attendance. Areas of offices have been designed for people to interact together and ignite the creative spark and innovation.”

Integrated communications

A key insight Cllr Hudspeth has taken from the pandemic has been the importance of integrated communications. 

One size does not fit all,” he said. For us being as local as possible has made a huge difference. Each local community is different and has difference issues and therefore requires a different approach. Having strong local relationships and using all communications tools available has been key for us. It is positive that everyone is communicating digitally and differently. But those less able to use digital tools require a traditional approach. 

Most private companies are satisfied with reaching a percentage of their audience, as it is costly to communicate. But for us as a local authority we must communicate with all 690,000 of our residents. It can be difficult as there are multiple platforms, and some can be labour intensive. The key for us is linking all our communications together and working to reach everyone.”

Get in touch 

You can contact Cllr Hudspeth here. Or if you would like to discuss communications support for your organisation you can contact us here.

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