News & Insights

Guest Article: The ABC of people-focused services

Article by Beth Durham Chart.PR MCIPR. Head of Media and Communications, Sussex Police

What people want and what the organisation thinks they might want or need are not always perfectly aligned.

As communicators we occupy the space in-between – using our skills to secure, as best we can, an effective and honest two-way connection.

At Sussex Police, over the past few years, we have increasingly used opinion research for quality insight to develop services or campaigns that are truly people-focused; this includes people and groups who routinely have no interest in interacting with the police.

For example, our knife crime prevention campaign was informed by the voices of more than 1,000 young people aged between 11 and 18 from across Sussex. We wanted to understand fears, perceptions and the pathways for knife crime, where no local data previously existed. We commissioned a third party to undertake this research and to identify and engage with habitual knife carriers and their reference groups.

The independent research found there was a distrust of the police and the audience would not be receptive to police-branded messaging. We discovered that existing reporting mechanisms were judged inadequate, making informants fearful of reprisals. We were also told that the reporting of local knife crime incidents can have a profound effect on individuals and heighten their sense of risk, leading to an increase in carrying behaviours.

Our non-branded multi-channel campaign was subsequently rolled out and included – in direct response to feedback – educational material featuring influencers who had been personally impacted by knife crime. The campaign was subsequently recognised as industry best practice by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).

More recently, and in response to growing public concern around violence against women and girls, we listened to the views of more than 2,300 women and girls from across Sussex. More than nine out of 10 told us they frequently felt unsafe in public spaces.

This insight led directly, among other interventions, to an ongoing public awareness campaign of the StreetSafe app, where people can report their public space safety concerns anonymously. StreetSafe reports in Sussex increased by 1300% as a result and these fed into the operational response, including deployments of engagement vans, additional CCTV and more visible police presence in many locations.

Done well, opinion research, and taking a blended approach, costs money. We have been fortunate enough in many cases to secure additional funding for research which has informed targeted communications or operational activity, or alternatively, to invest up-front in a long term approach – as in the case of drink driving.

Public and third sector organisations sadly do not routinely have ready pots of cash with which to commission independent research but, nevertheless, should still look to invest meaningful resource into listening to the views of the very people who will be receiving or impacted by their services, and build sufficient time in to do this.

For me, the principles remain the same:

  • Accessible – Go to where people are and use trusted third parties to reach groups that you otherwise cannot access. In one of my former roles, seeking views on major transport infrastructure changes, we held drop-in events at all times of the day, evening and week at a broad range of high footfall locations: train stations, park & rides, football and rugby matches, shopping centres, and even mother and baby classes. We used simple gaming tactics – coloured balls and perspex boxes – to gain a snapshot of views from people too busy to stop and chat. I know for sure we secured feedback from people we would otherwise not have heard from.
  • Balanced – Ensure the responses are representative and not skewed towards a particular location or demographic. Identify and secure the views of those most impacted or most likely to benefit from your decisions or actions, as well as those ready to engage. As far as possible, ensure sufficient data is collected for meaningful and statistically significant weighted analysis. This will ensure the voices of minority groups, for example, are not lost in the volume.
  • Considered – Make sure you can quickly and easily evaluate your communication effort and be prepared – in fact make an assumption – to refine, refine, refine. There may be something that doesn’t quite land on execution and your audience will be the first to let you know! Listen to them.

Finally, influence your organisation to take an evidence-based approach to strategic communications: reflect back the importance of public insight and support for long-term legitimacy, trust and confidence.

If we truly want to help people and deliver better services, then start with the basics: identify your audience, ask them, truly listen to them and involve them in the solution.

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