Communication and Engagement
Effective communication and engagement is integral to the success of responses to health emergencies.
The rapidly changing environment of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for prompt and accurate communication of key messages to key stakeholders to ensure they clearly understood their roles and responsibilities to help manage the crisis, to counter misinformation and enhance the reputation of the department.
What was done?
The response to COVID-19 commenced while the department was still responding to ongoing bushfires and floods across the state. Unlike crisis communications in the case of fires and floods which were localised to specific school communities, COVID-19 required a system wide response as it affected the entire state.
Through the response to COVID-19 the department leveraged a number of measures to communicate with staff, students, key stakeholders and the community. This included through:
- maintaining up to date and timestamped information on a set of dedicated COVID-19 pages on the education website, in a rapidly changing environment – the COVID-19 hub
- producing significant collateral for schools, including posters to display around the school supporting appropriate infection control and hygiene measures
- providing advice on supplies dispatched and how to use products
- providing a channel for all critical supply requests and enquiries
- providing avenues for principals to provide feedback and ask questions to the Secretary and Deputy Secretary
- supporting responses to a high volume of staff and public enquiries about the department’s response to COVID-19
- developing a ‘plan on a page’ for the managed return to school, providing schools and the community with confidence about the continued approach to managing COVID-19. This was the first such plan in the country.
- developing comprehensive guidelines for how schools would operate in Term 2 with supporting collateral, which were updated and reissued as health advice changed.
Key channels included:
- department-wide and school-leadership emails to communicate critical changes and announcements
- development of a COVID-19 webpage hub, internal and public facing, serving as a one-stop-shop for departmental staff and community members for all information in relation to COVID-19, including links to key resources, guidelines, fact sheets, FAQ and contact details
- introduction of a daily situational report sent through a dedicated email account to school executive and corporate managers summarising the key changes from the day, with links to key resources and further information
- social media platforms such as the department’s and individual school Facebook pages
- creation of a general enquiries phone line and email account for departmental staff and community members
- greater utilisation of live streams and online meeting platforms to host question and answer sessions for department staff and stakeholders.
- sharing of information with the education sector
- leveraging school and teacher advocates to share key updates and advice.
What was the impact?
The attendance patterns following major announcements of policy movements during the COVID-19 response indicate that messaging was communicated effectively to the public. Both in the transition to the remote learning period and in the return to face-to-face learning, it was clear that schools and the community understood who should be attending school, and what could and could not happen at school in each stage.
Schools are the primary source of information for parents about education and students. They hold this relationship and it is effective during normal operations. However, this is not an effective method during a system and state-wide crisis unless we can be confident all schools clearly and quickly relay advice to their communities. As a result of some delays in relaying advice to local school communities, all schools are now required to use the department’s social media platforms for consistency and timeliness of messaging.
The response to COVID-19 demonstrated that there is an almost total reliance on principals to disseminate information to teachers and school staff, however, principals were often not confident to make decisions in relation to COVID-19. As a result they directed their staff to the health and safety or EDConnect hotlines for advice resulting in significant increases in calls to those hotlines.
More regular face-to-face briefings are needed from the department to provide updates to principals. It is critical that clear advice is provided and where possible supported by a clear action plan for schools to follow. There was a reliance on Deputy Secretary emails and Situation Report daily update emails to disseminate advice internally, however open rates and effectiveness of these communication methods were not able to be measured.
Additionally, the process to publish content on the website and intranet was at times slow. As advice was changing rapidly, published content could be out of date quickly. The timing of releasing significant updated advice often meant school staff heard it at the same time as the public, often through media which was perceived negatively by school staff.
Improving these processes to equip principals with the information and confidence to keep staff at their schools informed, as well as establishing direct lines of communication with teachers to keep them informed and engaged in a timely way would be likely to significantly reduce confusion within the department. Key stakeholders and representatives of relevant business areas and school staff, including teachers, were consulted during decision making, however teachers themselves often did not feel part of the response.
Overall the Education website and intranet performed well with little to no interruptions and with extremely high visitor rates. While the dedicated COVID-19 hub on the website and intranet did host all official advice, the amount of information published and the speed at which it changed may have made it difficult to use and find relevant information. The COVID-19 hub was updated ahead of Term 2 to make it more user friendly and combined with official guidelines, it became a more valuable resource for school staff.
The Learning from Home hub was a key communication resource enabling students to seamlessly continue learning remotely and transition back to school. A key element of this is the way it was directly communicated to, and accessed by, teachers. Targeting communications in formats that teachers will engage with is critical to ensuring they will receive relevant information from the department.
The number of existing and new policies and processes relevant to COVID-19 made it hard to find relevant resources. Ahead of students returning to face-to-face learning, a checklist was published and shared with schools providing links to correct advice, policies and procedures to help schools prepare for more students on campus. This initiative was welcomed.
The formal guidelines documents, managed return to school plan, and supporting collateral including professionally designed posters and forms gave schools confidence to deliver the department’s advice and policy and also minimised the administrative burden of developing this collateral at school.
As a result of the department’s decentralised communication function, there was some duplication of work and at times lack of oversight. Additionally, the large number of frontline staff across multiple enquiry lines required timely and accurate information in order to be able to perform their functions effectively. This was critical to providing consistent advice to both internal and external stakeholders relying on these functions.
What should be kept or changed as a result?
A communication strategy specific for the period of COVID-19 and aligning to the department’s overarching communication strategy should have been developed early and progressively updated. A crisis communications strategy should be developed and regularly updated to allow this to happen quickly in any future state-wide emergencies. It should include roles, responsibilities and protocols specific to the crisis to ensure greater clarity and governance over the way in which advice is produced and disseminated and how content is published on the intranet and website.
Capability needs to be developed in-house so that the crisis response teams would ideally second someone from the central communications team so that access to the established channels (internal and external) is seamless and leverages existing processes.
During business as usual times, the department’s corporate communications should regularly connect and guide direction of all other department communications teams to ensure alignment of messaging. This group could then be leveraged and scaled up in emergency situations to ensure full department saturation and strategic use of channels.
Clearer, direct communications between the department and teachers would have more quickly made teachers aware of changing requirements for how schools would operate and the helpful support materials and guidance available. This would also enable them to communicate more effectively with parents.
Regular engagement with cross-sector stakeholders improved the quality and reception of the COVID-19 response. Considering mechanisms to continue and improve cross-sector engagement may assist with future reform, crisis responses and drive innovation to benefit learning.
The speed at which the crisis unfolded, combined with the decentralised model of communications, and ownership of channels and audiences, within the department, made it difficult to strategically plan and manage communications.
Better measurement of communications and segmentation of email distribution lists is needed to accurately understand the effectiveness of the department’s communication with internal stakeholders.