17 Aug Delivering inclusive and accessible COVID-19 communication in Birmingham (UK)
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for inclusive communication and information that can be accessed, understood, and acted upon by all throughout a crisis. Designing inclusive and accessible communication requires an understanding of the information needs of different groups, including vulnerable groups. Local governments and community partners play a vital role in translating national guidance into inclusive and accessible communication tailored to their local communities. In the UK, Birmingham City Council’s Public Health Division has focused on producing accessible communications and working in partnership with community partners to engage with communities and tailor communications effectively.
The need for inclusive and accessible communication
While communication has undoubtedly played a key role providing status updates and guidance during the COVID-19 response, it has also highlighted communication gaps that disproportionately impact vulnerable groups. Addressing these gaps requires engagement with vulnerable groups to understand their information needs and how the following recommendations proposed by the COVINFORM and PROACTIVE projects can be implemented in practice:
- Accessible and inclusive communication
- Actionable communication
- Trusted and credible communication
- Relevant and timely communication
- Understandable communication
The 2021 UK census highlighted Birmingham’s “super diversity” as ethnic minorities represent more than half of Birmingham’s population. Birmingham also has a high proportion of young people in comparison to the rest of Europe as under 25s comprise just under 40% of the population. Consistent with Birmingham’s demographic profile, producing accessible communications for “older, young people, those with disabilities and language difficulties” was one of the objectives of Birmingham’s COVID-19 engagement framework. From the very beginning of the pandemic, Birmingham City Council’s Public Health Division’s approach was focused on understanding the population’s information needs and tailoring communication to these needs to ensure communication was accessible. The next sections outline their approach based on desk-based and primary research with Birmingham City Council undertaken as part of the EU funded COVINFORM project. It also showcases how the above recommendations were put into practice.
Understanding information needs of local communities
From the beginning of the pandemic, Birmingham’s Public Health Division made it a priority to understand the needs and issues being faced by different local communities to develop accessible and inclusive communication. Their efforts included varied methods such as:
- Conducting a COVID-19 Health and Wellbeing Impact online survey in May 2020 to understand health and wellbeing behaviours. The survey findings highlighted NHS England, Public Health England, and Birmingham City Council as the most trusted information sources. Birmingham City Council was trusted more than National Government and local media channels
- Undertaking ethnographic research with 12 citizens in 2020 to understand their experience of the pandemic and shed light on inequalities, support needs, and engagement with public services
- Commissioning 19 community engagement partners in 2020 to understand the issues faced by BAME, disabled, and LGBT communities. These partners worked with Public Health England to develop appropriate messages and used culturally sensitive methods to get the messages out into the communities
- Launching a community champions programme in September 2020 to ensure that accurate and up to date information reached champions’ networks, family and friends. A follow-up survey in January 2021 found that Facebook and WhatsApp were the most popular channels for sharing information. The survey also highlighted that barriers to sharing information were “too much information causing stress or having too much information out there”.
- Leveraging community radio and community orientated media to communicate key information to different groups between 2020 and 2021. This included online Q&As, radio advertising, and podcasts in multiple languages with simultaneous translation. Q&A sessions were held with different organisations on topics such as vaccines within the Muslim community, care staff vaccines, and young people’s vaccines.
Building trust and credibility
Transparency and the use of scientific and statistical evidence are critical to building trust in communication. Birmingham City Council prioritised communicating relevant data on pandemic trends and vaccination with community members during the pandemic to ensure transparency. This transparency supported the Council in increasing its relationships with several partners including organizations within communities, local volunteers, schools, and local associations. While these relationships existed before the pandemic, they have been now consolidated.
The use of trusted sources to deliver information is also important to build trust. During December 2020, Birmingham City Council engaged with faith based community groups to disseminate information through:
- 36+ interfaith meetings
- 18+ COVID-19 virtual briefing sessions for Birmingham Masjids
- 18+ COVID-19 meetings with Ministers and Pastors from Black Churches
The community champions programme also meant that information was being shared in personal and social networks trusted by communities. By January 2022, there were 890 community champions receiving weekly data infographics and text messages. The community champions then disseminated information to their groups and friends and provided valuable feedback on communication and misinformation to the Council.
Developing understandable communication
Communication needs to be understood if it is to be acted upon. In Birmingham, the community champions also played a key role in testing COVID-19 communication and providing insights on what needed improvement. The Community Champions programme was viewed as a form of co-production, whereby community champions representing different groups collaborated with the Council to develop solutions to the communication challenges. Examples of co-production include:
- Community champions informed the council that information did not reach their community as they did not have smartphones and English literacy was low. The proposed solution was to adapt the message to very simplified English and to send it by text message instead of WhatsApp.
- Champions representing communities that were not using the antigen testing kits informed the Council that the kits were difficult to understand as the instructions were 17 pages long. A solution proposed by the Champions was to do a demonstration of the test, which increased the uptake of the tests.
An inclusive and accessible approach to COVID-19 communication has been at the core of Birmingham City Council Public Health’s division’s response to COVID-19. By collaborating with different partners and launching the Community Champions initiative, the Council have actively engaged with and sought to understand the needs and concerns of different groups, co-producing effective solutions. It is this direct engagement and communication at a local level that enables local governments to adopt inclusive and accessible approaches through their interaction with community partners.
Dr Justin Varney, Director of Public Health Birmingham City Council highlights how
“Engagement and communication is key to any incident response. Our experience through Covid really demonstrated that this needs a multi-layered approach rooted in authentic communication through multiple channels reinforcing consistent messaging reflecting and answering questions from people living the reality in different communities across the city. Two way communication has been key to the response, whether this has been through Facebook live BSL Q&A, regional and community radio phone ins or the feedback from our covid champions. There is no doubt that lives were saved in Birmingham because of the partnership work with community and faith organisations, volunteer champions and local radio and press.”
Author: Su Anson (Trilateral Research)