Reaching the not so hard-to-reach

hard-to-reach | Housing communications

Just because something is difficult, it doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. But for a long time, labelling groups as “hard-to-reach” has shifted responsibility away from the organisations and comms teams who should have been doing more to engage with all service users, residents and customers.

Last month, during the CIPR not for profit and CIPR Midlands’ “What a Difference a Year Makes ­– Comms vs Covid” webinar, these same groups were described as “seldom heard”, a much better name, which puts the emphasis on working harder to listen and respond.

This is important, because where engagement falls down, a vacuum forms. When levels of trust and representation are not built, voids remain.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen how voids can be filled with dangerous rumours and misinformation – and this really can be a matter of life and death. Members of BME communities are both more likely to die from COVID-19, but also, to refuse vaccinations due to having been exposed to misinformation.


Filling the void


While housing providers are not directly responsible for communications around COVID vaccinations, they are important partners when it comes to improving longer-term health outcomes for communities, and tackling inequalities resulting from the pandemic. This recent report from our client settle is a great example of lessons and opportunities for housing providers in this area.

Housing providers are already doing so much to provide advice and support to residents who are struggling, and there are many examples of housing providers finding creative ways to build trust and representation among the so-called “hard-to-reach”.

Now seems like the right time to harness and learn from these – and to go back to basics in order to ensure that housing providers are reaching and representing all of their residents, so they can have the biggest possible positive impact during the months and years ahead.


Getting started 


In its guidance to boards, around engaging with the ‘hard-to-reach’, the Good Governance Institute suggests that organisations begin by gaining a better appreciation of the make-up the communities they serve.

Meanwhile, in their “Engaging and empowering tenants in council-owned housing” report, Tpas and the Local Government Association, point to the use of tenancy audits, which “provide valuable insight that enables a greater understanding of tenants”.

Once they have the information you need, says the Good Governance Institute’s guidance, organisations need to “be clear about which groups [they] need to target and what [they] want to achieve by engaging with them”.

“Groups aren’t all the same,” highlights the guidance. Working with comms colleagues and consultants, organisations can “consider each of them and develop different and appropriate strategies to engage”.


Adapting stakeholder mapping


In July last year, Ambition for Ageing, a Greater Manchester-wide cross-sector partnership, published a useful workbook called, “Mapping and working with marginalised communities”, designed to help identify and support “hard-to-reach” groups.

It details a spatial quadrant diagram, which can be used to map these groups relating their relative size and geographic distribution. It also suggests ways to target and support each group.


Engaging community and faith leaders


Adding respected local community and faith leaders who are currently missing from stakeholder lists to those lists, and working hard to build relationships, can lead to huge breakthroughs.

During the recent CIPR webinar, Raman Johal, Communications and Engagement Manager at NHS Coventry and Rugby Clinical Commissioning Group, explained how her team had been able to engage with seldom heard (“hard-to-reach”) groups including refugees, migrants, travellers, and BAME communities throughout the pandemic, because of its relationship with community leaders and their community groups.

“They have established virtual connections, via Zoom and Teams and so on, and we’ve been able to hop into those, and it’s been really valuable for us,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to get everybody together into one room, including interpreters, and get feedback and find out where people are.”

Meanwhile, Dr Justin Varney, director of public health at Birmingham City Council, writing for the MJ, explained how the local authority had been having weekly meetings with faith leaders since March 2020.

This engagement led to some faith leaders organising specific faith seminars on vaccine understanding, with several consenting to be vaccinated on camera to help increase confidence amongst their congregations.


Taking a planned approach


“The term ‘community engagement’ can mean different things to different people and can cover a range of approaches depending on what people want it to achieve,” states Tower Hamlets Council’s Community Engagement Strategy 2020-2021.

More than two-thirds of those who live in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets belong to a minority ethnic group. The local authority believes that, in order to be successful, community engagement has to be “a planned process”, which has the “specific purpose of working with identified groups of people, whether they are connected by place, interest, affiliation or identity, to encourage them to actively take part in making decisions about their community”.

Individuals need to understand the benefits of engaging with an organisation – so it makes sense to focus on the matters that are of most concern to them.

Managing expectations is also important. “Poorly planned involvement can often lead to resentment,” states Tower Hamlets in its strategy document.

The local authority is striving for a “simpler and more streamlined experience, which encourages residents to take part, demonstrates how people’s involvement informs decision-making, and supports communities to develop their ability to get people involved”.


Employing a range of comms tactics


Bangla Housing Association and Spitalfields Housing Association, which work with the Bangladeshi community in Hackney and Tower Hamlets, have left no stone unturned in their communications around COVID-19.

Together, they have employed two COVID community advisors, who speak Bengali, and whose job it is to contact vulnerable Bangladeshi residents and community members who could be described as “hard-to-reach”. They work in partnership with community organisations, as well as NHS Trusts, medical centres and local authority teams, to ensure they are providing up-to-date, culturally sensitive, practical advice.

The housing associations have also translated COVID-19 information leaflets and produced a short video containing hard-hitting information about the virus and emphasising the importance of abiding with the government’s health advice and rules.

This video is posted on both housing providers’ websites, as well as those of partners organisations, and has been shared with community groups, youth and mosque centres, clubs for elderly people, NHS medical centres, and council offices. It has also been shared via Facebook, twitter, and Instagram, and within WhatsApp groups.

By engaging community ambassadors, the housing associations have been able to communicate their messages via Bangladeshi print and electronic media, including community TV channels.


Building back better


“The pandemic is testing our societal structures like never before,” wrote Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University. And in doing so, it has highlighted where things were not working.

For comms and engagement teams, moving forward will involve redefining “hard-to-reach” groups as “seldom heard”, and taking the steps needed to make sure their organisations are listening.


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Lydia Stockdale is Public Relations Director at See Media