Thursday, 3 May 2012

Communicating welfare reform

Whether you agree or disagree with welfare reform, if your job is to communicate it to tenants you have a tricky task in hand.
There are so many changes and they will affect everyone differently depending on their personal circumstances, so how do you communicate them?
At Wolverhampton Homes, we've decided to communicate early, often and as simply as possible, with a call to action that we want to discuss our customers' options with them face-to-face.
We've already had a series of Get Togethers, which introduced the topic; shared information on our website, facebook and twitter; had articles in our newsletter for the past 18 months and worked with our local media to raise awareness.
But it's not enough to just raise awareness. We want tenants to have enough information to be able to make decisions that will give them the best possible future.
Now we're planning the next phase of our communications. We have consulted tenants about what they want from us and from our communications. They've requested face-to-face meetings as far as possible because they know that everyone will be affected differently and that people will be thinking 'ok, but what does it mean for me?'. They want a special version of our newsletter, entirely dedicated to welfare reform, so we're working on that now. They also think everyone should be written to inviting them to contact us, including frequently asked questions.
The other thing they said to us was to make the figures real, giving pound and pence numbers, rather than percentages. Tenants added that bringing the topic to life with real examples was important - such as 'if you're a couple with two teenage sons aged 13 and 15, the Government considers you to be under-occupying', so people can work out if it affects them.
We feel that the term welfare reform can be a bit jargon-y in isolation. 'Changes to benefits' would probably mean more to the man in the street but as welfare reform becomes more widely reported in the media, the term is becoming better known.
All our staff and partners will be briefed so they're well placed to answer questions.
To give tenants choices about how they receive the information, we're also going to produce videos (with transcriptions) and visually represent the changes in our leaflets, using pictures of homes and people who might be affected.
The other thing that we're keen to make clear is that this is a Government decision. It is important tenants understand who has made these changes.
I think it's also important to share best practice and see what other organisations are doing. Through the National Federation of ALMOs, I'm fortunate to belong to a group where other comms officers happily share their learning and how they're tackling issues.
Communicating welfare reform will likely be the biggest challenge that social housing communications practitioners have ever faced so we need to listen to tenants, be creative in our approaches and learn from each other.


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