Blog: Community engagement enriches our communications

Community engagement and the vital ‘insight’ it brings, is putting ‘Community Engagement’ firmly on the map as a vital communications discipline…

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown that simply relying on one-way communications isn’t an effective way of getting our residents to trust the messages we’re cascading out of a myriad of corporate communications channels.  

Genuine and authentic two-way dialogue with our communities is one of the key ways to rebuild trust within communities, at a time when people are distrustful of messages from the Government or official public bodies, with public bodies sometimes being seen as the mouthpieces of government.  

The last year and a half has really made me appreciate the value of good insight gathered by working in collaboration with our communities, benefiting from their lived experiences and feedback to craft culturally sensitive campaigns which resonate with our diverse communities.  

Many smaller councils team up their engagement and comms work into one team (or sometimes, into one role). In others, the community engagement role is often part of a Policy and Strategy function. I’ve seen some councils advertising for Communications & Engagement Officers, but the job description and person specification reads more like a comms/ PR role. 

So what’s the difference between community engagement and communications? 

Community engagement is about working in collaboration with our communities to co-design solutions. The level of engagement can vary, and most often involves two-way communication. In contrast, ‘communications’ activities are often one-way, involving disseminating information.  

Engagement driven communications model

At Hackney, we’ve implemented an engagement driven communications model, which I believe is the communications model for the future, because it ensures that our local communities are at the heart of everything we do, working together to co-produce and co-design behavioural change campaigns together, ensuring a greater chance of success. 

The importance of this model was brought to the fore with the Covid-19 pandemic, as we run countless focus groups to gather insight from our residents to support our campaign to increase vaccine take-up amongst our diverse communities, especially those that are ‘cautious’ or ‘hesitant’. 

In Hackney, and across London generally, attitudes towards the Covid-19 vaccine, although becoming more positive across the population, have remained lower amongst groups such as Black and Black British residents, the young and those from deprived backgrounds.  

Having facilitated countless focus groups to further understand the reasons for vaccine hesitancy amongst some of our vaccine cautious residents, there was a lack of trust in the often well crafted messages provided by government and quasi-governmental bodies, local authorities included.  In such instances, simply sending out more of the same well crafted messages to this ‘vaccine hesitant/cautious’ group is doomed to fail.  

And why is that? Would you trust the messages coming from an organisation that may share your details with the Home Office, as was mentioned in sessions we run with migrants without recourse to public funds? 

Community engagement can play a key role in helping to rebuild trust with our communities. We can do this by creating a genuine dialogue with communities, actively listening and embracing community driven solutions. 

What we’ve learnt through our ‘Hackney Young Futures Commission’, pre-pandemic, is that young people in Hackney, the most digitally engaged audience we have, didn’t want to engage digitally when it came to talking about their lived experience in Hackney.  Despite providing them with online response options to share their thoughts and feelings online, they preferred to share their experiences in person through face-to-face methods, facilitated by people they trust, like peer researchers.  

As communicators, we often assume because our audience uses digital technology, digital comms will be their preferred methods of engagement.  Young people may engage on TikTok, Instagram, for instance, but when we asked them about their lived experience in Hackney, this wasn’t how they wanted to share it.  

Hackney, like most local authorities across the country, is now grappling with how best to target the younger cohorts, the under 25s, who are now eligible to receive the vaccine, but are known to be more vaccine cautious than the older generation.  

What we’re finding is that taking advantage of local insight, from young people, as shown in the Youth Engagement Toolkit, is really helping to further improve how we engage with younger audiences. The data showed that 90% of 16–24 year olds own a smartphone and  50% of young people aged 18–24 check their phone within 5 minutes of waking up.  However, we were reminded that we shouldn’t forget about other methods of engagement like using schools, trusted people like teachers, for example. This toolkit is testament to the fabulous work of La Braya Buffong Richmond and Patience Quarcoo, two young communications & engagement professionals in our directorate, who co-produced this toolkit in collaboration with local young people.  

I’d urge you to take a look through the toolkit, as it is a guide that I am finding invaluable in continuing to improve how we communicate key health messages to our young people in Hackney.  

Florence Obinna (@FlorenceObinna1) is a Consultation & Engagement Manager at the London Borough of Hackney.


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