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What is the role of comms teams in responding to social crises?

1 September 2020

The past four months have shown themselves to be a uniquely challenging time for charities and charity communications alike. COVID-19 has reprogramed the way we think, work and behave, whilst social movements like Black Lives Matter has forced into question all of our priorities and strategy.

At akt, as a charity supporting LGBTQ+ young people facing homelessness, experiencing familial rejection and living in a hostile environment these challenges have been particularly present. 24% of the U.K homelessness population identify as LGBTQ+ and 68% of the young people accessing our services are black and PoC (rising to 80% in London). Therefore, COVID and BLM have had a profound social, mental and physical impact on those we support. As a communications team it’s been important we raise awareness of this. But it is equally important to work in cohesion with the rest of the organisation to ensure our external output is something all staff can be proud of.

As our communications team is relatively small we’ve had to work efficiently and consistently and have learnt a lot along the way. I’d like to reflect on the accomplishments and challenges our team has faced to offer advice and learning to fellow charity communications teams as they are faced with any future difficulties.

Let’s talk Coronavirus

COVID-19 for better or worse cast a lot of limelight on the issue of homelessness. There was heightened interest specifically on the experiences of LGBTQ+ young people in lockdown within homophobic households. Subsequently national and regional press coverage for akt catapulted.

Amidst this, we launched the #aktogether appeal to raise money to support LGBTQ+ young people at high risk due to COVID. This enabled us to provide accommodation to rough sleepers in need of a safe place to undergo lockdown or food and hygiene supplies. We also launched #aktogether sessions – a two-day online extravaganza providing practical tips, Pride-themed Q&As and guest featured Instagram Lives.

Grahame, our design and production co-ordinator, crafted #aktogether’s official programme capturing interest and attendance. Charlie, our digital officer and social media whizz, created our online hub and resource page to provide a nexus of COVID-related information for our young people that doubled up as an online safe space for the community to connect with each other. Together as a team, we utilised Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as tools to push wellbeing focused posts, online events and tips to navigate lockdown. All this joined up action saw the resource page garner thousands of views, whilst our social media content collectively amassed 22,400 engagements. By ensuring a proactive effort across the communications team, from social media to placed media and interviews, we were able to trace 36% of new and one off donations back to comms and demonstrate the vital role we play.

What we learnt: The team was overstretched and at the same time the numbers and needs of our young people were peaking and the weight of this filtered down onto us all. As a result, there was some breakdown in communication between team members and tasks became muddled.

One learning from this would be for colleagues to ensure asks to each other are as clear as possible and cater to the individual’s time frame. Additionally, it’s useful to recognise the advantage that comes with a cross-sector response to a crisis. Charities facing a challenging event or issue should take a minute to step back and consider how they might work with other charities to strengthen their own asks and aims. Communication teams can be mobilised to join forces to produce an open letter to the government for example, or work on a joined-up poignant press piece for national media.

What about Black Lives Matter?

As mentioned a significant number of young people accessing our services are black or PoC. BLM compelled us to scrutinize the extent to which we were amplifying black and PoC voices and being actively anti-racist in every aspect of the organisation.

Heading up press and media, I proactively pitched to regional, national and sector-based media outlets the experiences and voices of our black and PoC LGBTQ+ young people. In particular discussing issues relevant to BLM including anti-blackness in housing and racism within the renting sphere. Issues like young black men having to resort to a ‘professional Western’ name when applying for house viewings – just to get a response. Or being unfairly dismissed by prospective white housemates who believe they ‘weren’t the right fit’.  Black men are also disproportionately stopped and searched by police. This negatively impacts young black men who are rough sleeping as the police are constantly moving them along, this prevents StreetLink, who require rough sleepers to be in a fixed location, from helping them into shelter.

Charlie made sure to share supportive resources via social media for LGBTQ+ black young people to help with these issues,  including signal boosting content and graphics from queer black organisations and creating a resource page for our young black people.

However, it also became clear that affirmative action needed to be taken internally within akt to combat racism and anti-blackness. As a whole staff team we agreed to a series of commitments that spoke to prioritising the needs and protecting the rights of black and PoC individuals, staff members and young people. The communications team created assets to be shared externally outlining these commitments and staff had the opportunity to feedback on the assets with amendments being made after receiving colleague suggestions. For issues that are integral to an organisation and require all-staff buy-in, providing an element of consultation with your colleagues is essential.

Comms-specific commitments were also made to tackle anti-blackness. These included ensuring at least 65% of any paid creatives we collaborated with would be black or people of colour – to reflect the young people we support. We also committed to supporting grassroots volunteer groups combating racism or transphobia, by assisting in the delivery of asset creation, press and media. All while also working to engage black and PoC voices in our public affairs work to ensure our policy implementation and consideration of policy areas specifically work to remove the barriers preventing our service users getting support.

What we learnt: The biggest learning here was to act with intention and not fear. When an important yet challenging event takes place, charities can quickly become overwhelmed with concern over the correct course of action to take. Or worse – use other charities as a benchmark to how much or little action to take. In reality, it is best to consult colleagues, agree on your strategy and commit in a way that is authentic to your company values and representative of the needs of your service users or beneficiaries.

We can see that when faced with a social crisis a communications team plays a critical role. Internally they must effectively consult across different teams and agree on a strategy. Externally, this strategy must be executed in a way that is authentic to your company values and representative of the needs of your service users or beneficiaries.

Photo: Clay Banks on Unsplash

Bex Shorunke

PR and media engagement manager, Mermaids

Bex Shorunke (she/her) is the PR and media engagement manager at Mermaids, a leading LGBTQ+ charity supporting trans, non-binary and gender diverse children, young people and families. Previously Bex worked at LGBTQ+ homeless charity akt. Outside of work, she is undertaking an MA looking into ethnicity, culture and intersectionality and does occasional freelance journalism.