Leicester’s Covid-19 Pandemic Strategic Media Response

Originally published at: https://decentered.co.uk/leicesters-covid-19-pandemic-strategic-media-response/

Leicester City Council has released a comprehensive report, compiled by Professor Ivan Browne, the city’s director of public health, and his team, that looks at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Leicester. This report combines both a statistical analysis of the social challenges faced in Leicester when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and also the human stories that reflect the resilience, challenges, and community spirit of Leicester during the unique times of 2020 to 2022.

The report candidly acknowledges that the health disparities that existed in Leicester before the pandemic have been worsened, and acknowledges that a full understanding of the pandemic’s impact is still unfolding. The report highlights how the city’s response to these inequalities will be a critical area of focus in the coming months and years.

Leicester’s unique experience of being the first local authority area to be placed under a local lockdown is chronicled in the report. The report also details the timeline of events, the number of cases, the testing, and vaccine programmes, and most importantly, the ways in which the city’s communities are believed to have united to respond to the crisis. Professor Browne, who will soon be stepping down from his role, reflects in the report on the toll that the lockdowns took on people’s health, livelihoods, and overall well-being.

One area, however, that is not covered in any detail or examined about specific case studies in the report, is the role of media and communications. If Leicester City Council is looking at all factors associated with the public health response, then an examination of the role that public, community and social messaging played in the pandemic must surely be part of this appraisal?

For example, how was Leicester’s local public response shaped by, and understood in the context of both local, national and international media? How effectively were the City Council’s communications resources utilised to engage with people across the city in the many communities that represent the make-up of Leicester? What community-focussed media assets did Leicester City Council, and associated public partners, utilise to build trust, provide accurate information, and ensure that the public response to the pandemic was well met?

While the lasting impact of the pandemic on Leicester is only slowly beginning to be understood, this report serves as a useful starting point for further exploration. It is somewhat worrying, however, that no systematic examination of Leicester City Council’s communication strategy has been included. At a time when Ofcom, for example, was concerned that misinformation and the potential that manipulation and conspiracy theories could undermine the pandemic response, did the communications team at Leicester City Council also seek to account for or challenge information that was being shared and circulated in Leicester. The obvious question is: Did misinformation play a role in extending the lockdown in Leicester?

There are occasional passing references in the report of stories that were shared via social media, which were used to provide public and information, and which were channelled through newspapers, television, radio and social media channels. However, these stories and instances of communication innovation have not contextualised, or systematically examined in this report. Some issues that we might expect to understand include:

  • What was the engagement rate of each form of media and communication that the communications team was able to track?
  • What were the expectations of communication practice that we held by the public health teams at the time of the pandemic?
  • What was the mix of available alternatives that were considered by Leicester City Council’s communications teams to ensure that an optimal community engagement response was realised?
  • What needs analysis drove each type of communication, and how did feedback influence or help to refine the effectiveness of these messages and stories?
  • Did the forms and style of communication prioritise the interests of some groups over others?
  • What was learnt about operating in a multi-platform and multichannel media environment?

The obvious question, which was raised by many during the pandemic, is did poor communications contribute to the extended lockdown? Was the focus on legacy modes of communication, such as BBC Leicester, East Midlands television, the Leicester Mercury, and so on, a help or a hindrance? Was the use of digital media effective in reaching the people across the whole social spectrum, particularly the most vulnerable and the most isolated? Did the communications strategy align with the public health priorities as noted in the demographic profile of different people living across the city, who often faced very different challenges?

The report rightly recommends a focus on local responses, local knowledge, and local social and community assets, so why is community radio not included in this evaluation? At the time of the pandemic there were six full-time Ofcom licenced community radio stations operating in Leicester, including: Kohinoor Radio, Leicester Community Radio, Radio Seerah, Radio2Funky, EAVA FM and Takeover Radio. These are in addition to Sabras Radio, Sanskar Radio, Ramadan Radio and Panj Pani Radio, each who are well established and provide local platforms for locally produced radio content, such as news, information, companionship and reassurance to their listeners during the pandemic.

Leicester Community Radio, for example, was the longest running Covid-19 radio licence in the country, operating for seventeen months to provide information and advice to people across the whole Leicester Urban Area. As a Caribbean-led community radio station, LCR was able to maintain a service that was accessible to English-speaking people who do not engage with the BBC or other forms of commercial media, because of cultural, social and economic exclusion.

Similarly, Kohinoor Radio was situated at the heart of the Leicester East communities when the textile factory scandal broke. Kohinoor provided extensive and continuous broadcasting, as a platform that supported information and opportunities in appropriate languages that enabled local information to be shared in a trusted manner. Why have either of these services not been recognised within this report?

In April 2021, the Decentered Media podcast questioned how public health communication in Leicester was being managed. Was ‘nudge’ theory counterproductive to the national and local governments communications response? It’s essential that any review of the pandemic and its impact lays out the options that were available to the communication teams across all the public services at the time, and within the context of the emergency response parameters.

Having worked closely with a number of community radio stations and community media groups during and after the pandemic, it’s disappointing that no acknowledgement of the role of community media has been given in this report. Nothing was perfect about the response of community radio during the pandemic, and much needs to be questioned about the effectiveness of the public authorities’ communication response, and the community media response, but what is most disappointing is that the role that community radio in Leicester has not been recognised at all.

The report acknowledges the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the complexity of the response required. It praises the resilience and adaptability of the community and the authorities but also recognises areas for improvement. The lessons learned are intended to inform future public health strategies and ensure that Leicester is better prepared for similar challenges in the future. This must include the media platforms, assets, and expectations as well.