Over the life cycle of your project it’s important to ensure that you are communicating effectively with your various audiences. As your new social care co-op moves from concept to launch and beyond, keeping a steady flow of useful and interesting information going out, and listening carefully to what’s coming in, is invaluable.
You’ll have differing and overlapping communications needs over time: at the outset you’ll want to set out and test your ideas in order to gauge the level of community support and interest, and to recruit steering group members and supporters from amongst your target community. You should think about how you can engage effectively with local councillors to win political support for your project. As your project develops you’ll want to reach out to potential employees, raise awareness amongst health and social care professionals in your local public sector institutions who can provide invaluable advice, local knowledge and guidance as well as being potentially crucial partners once your operation is up and running. And if raising finance from your community is part of your plan, you’ll need to ensure that there is a high level of awareness of your project and that potential investors are well informed.
Channels, Methods & Tools
You have a range of communications channels open to you. Different channels will reach different segments of your target audience, with some overlap.
Pathway of Engagement
Think of your communications activities as if you are building a pathway between your project and the community that you are seeking to engage with. Your messages, your social media posts, your events and newsletters are all designed to enable people in your community to develop an interest in your project and take a step or two on the pathway to move closer to your project, to engage a little more deeply. To facilitate this journey of engagement you provide steps along the path. A simple step might be to like or share one of your social media posts. A further step might be to comment on a message you put out on social media, or maybe clicking on a link in an email newsletter.
Social media can be highly effective, especially, as is almost certainly the case, where you can identify locally focussed channels within social media, such as Facebook groups that focus on a specific locality or subject area, Twitter accounts and hashtags that focus on your geographic patch and/or specific constituencies within your target audience, etc. Try to identify the social media platforms that your audience uses and focus your energies there. Try to engage with your audience – remember that social media is a very much a two way street, so if you get responses to your posts, engage in the discussion and tell your project’s story, with the goal of building a following and recruiting supporters.
Set up a Facebook page and tie this in with your website and mailing list sign-up.
Organise community engagement events where you can make a presentation about your group’s concerns around the problems in social care, set out your ideas and stimulate discussion. An event like this may well be of interest to local news outlets.
Events can also be targeted to specific groups, and as your project develops you might want to reach out to care professionals, potential employees, families who might be thinking about organising care for an older or disabled relative.
When you come to launch your business plan and your community share offer, you’ll want to organise one or more events to bring people together so that you can make your pitch and seek their financial support for your project.
Once you are up and running community engagement events continue to provide an important opportunity to maintain and strengthen the all-important links with your local community. You may want to consider holding an event to align with your AGM, so you are not just speaking to your membership but also reaching out to a wider cross-section of your community.
Offer opportunities for people with sufficient interest to join your steering group. While you don’t want your group to grow too large, taking your project through from concept to launch will take some time - probably at least a year and likely longer, so it is quite likely that you’ll see people drop out over time as other things take prominence in their lives, so it’s important to maintain an open door approach throughout - you never know who might walk in.
Local press, online news media and TV/Radio
Local media organisations are always interested in a good story, so make use of them. Find out what’s out there that is relevant to your audience, and make contact. Think about how you can make what you are doing attractive to local media, through things like photo opportunities, links with your local MP, and such like.
Running your own website is a key component of your communications strategy. It’s a really useful location online where you can present your story in as much depth as you care to provide, where you can enable visitors to subscribe to mailings lists, ask about joining your steering group, apply for membership, make a donation, and so on. It’s also a great place to link to from all of your social media activity, providing more stepping stones on that pathway of engagement.
There’s a wide range of tools, systems and providers out there offering services to help you get a website up and running. There will be costs involved, so you may not be able to get a website up in the early phase of you project, but you should factor it in as soon as you can afford it, and our advice is to use a service that is sufficiently flexible and adaptable so that you won’t have to start all over again once you start trading. We opted for a simple Wordpress website and we have some expertise within our steering group that was helpful. We know that Wordpress is a hugely flexible system and is also quite well known so there’s a fair chance that at least one or two of the people in your group will have some experience with it. It’s also an open source tool so you are not painting yourself into a proprietary corner that might be costly to maintain or extricate yourself from in the future as your needs change or the company goes bust.
Set up a mailing list that people can subscribe to. There are plenty of tools to help you set this up, from Mailchimp through to numerous website plugins and modules for almost any web content management system or platform you care to use.
Think about using your mailing list sign up forms to gather some additional information that might be helpful to you. If you know who on your contact list is a care professional, for example, you can produce targeted mailings specific to this type of audience.
Name and Branding
As your project develops the name and branding of your emerging co-operative will become increasingly important. Here in the Colne Valley we designed our branding so that it was simple, and sufficiently flexible such that if other new care co-ops that develop wanted to align with us and form a sister co-op our branding could be easily adapted, creating a clear visual connection.
Be prepared to invest in some simple clear design work that will add a lot of value to your communications. If you produce materials such as event flyers, your business plan, share offer document, forms etc., make sure they look the part and are consistently branded and designed with consistent styling across all of your materials and online presence in line with your brand.
More to follow
We have not included much more specific information here beyond the basic principles (for now) as there are so many options on how to take things forward and they depend on your local context. We will share some more specific examples of some of the specific steps we have taken which will hopefully be useful.