Communicating across the digital divide

The pandemic changed the way we engage with our audiences. As face to face communication was severely curtailed, instead we inhabited a strange hinterland where  meetings took place on Zoom, conversations happened in WhatsApp groups and digital communication took over. This was a boon to many organisations who found it saved time and money, but they soon discovered a significant number of people were not reachable through digital channels. The numbers are higher than you might think. Ten million people in the UK lack the most basic digital skills, around 15 million have very low levels of digital engagement and 1.5 million households (one in 20) have no internet access at all. (Information from the Good Things Foundation digital exclusion report .)

To explore this issue further the CIPR’s Not-for-Profit Sector Group held a panel event (online) in July with speakers spanning national public sector organisations, local government, charities and consultancies. 

Engaging with the hard to reach – the 2021 Census

The big challenge for the Office of National Statistics (ONS) – organisers of the first ‘digital-first’ Census in 2021 – was how to reach people who were not online. That meant gathering information about the habits and capabilities of an estimated 11 million, from people living in care homes and prisons, to others with no fixed address and those who were either not IT literate or lacked access to computers. 

“We devised 30 individual campaigns aimed at 58 discrete hard-to-reach groups and did      a lot of testing and rehearsing,” says Jo Parry, Head of Campaigns and Strategic Communications at the ONS. “It was important that all communications were accessible and inclusive. This meant understanding people’s mind sets and motives. They should not just be defined according to whether they were digitally active or not.”  

The aim was to devise the most inclusive campaign as possible in order to get people to respond, with a target of achieving 75% of responses online. Materials had to be produced in 35 languages. Pop-up activities were organised through partner organisations. (One was The Good Things Foundation, mentioned below.) The ONS created more than 700 support centres, set up phone helplines, organised door-to-door visits, ran advertising campaigns (online and offline) and provided opportunities for community engagement. 

The results exceeded expectations with 89% Census forms completed online and an overall response rate of 97%. If the Census had been done entirely off line it would have needed 450 million pieces of paper, so massive savings were achieved. But most of all,
the campaign succeeded in reaching many people who were digitally excluded.

Read more.
Digital take up of Census 2021 beats targets Census 2021Digital take up of Census 2021 beats targets Census 2021
Designing a digital-first census - Office for National Statistics (

Nobody in the dark. Support for financially excluded people.

Every year in September The Good Things Foundation –  a digital inclusion charity - . publishes a digital exclusion report . The latest one reveals that people who have limited uses of the internet are four times more likely to be from low income households, ten times more likely to be over 65 and eight times less likely to have had a post-18 education. The charity’s ‘Nobody in the dark’ campaign  (working with Mastercard, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Lloyds Banking Group and Clean Slate Training and Employment) set out to provide support to digitally and financially excluded people, particularly those in poverty hit hardest by the impact of Covid.

“We had a mixture of public relations communications, social media advertising and local relationship building with one-to-one support for people,” says Anna Osbourne, Head of Marketing and Communications.

The charity lit up tower blocks in London and Bristol  with messages that appeared for         exactly 19 minutes and 40 seconds, representing the 19.4 million who were not prepared for the economic downturn. They engaged people in the community face to face to help improve their digital skills and ran a series of pop up events around the country. They set up an online portal with case studies where people could access resources.  Social media proved to be a really effective tool to reach people, particularly Facebook. But digital exclusion was still an issue.

“We know more people have used the internet during the last two years as they've had to,  so the divide has narrowed,” says Anna. ”But actually those who are excluded are more excluded than they have been previously. If people haven't used technology in the last two and a half years, they're even less likely to do so. There are people that are still very limited in what they can do.”

New ways of reaching people with dementia

Reaching people who have dementia presents particular problems. In many circumstances communicating with them digitally is not appropriate for those who don’t use the internet or mobile phones. For the charity Dementia Research UK lockdown shut off some of their essential communication channels such as memory clinics which were closed for up to eight months. Also, fewer people were registering for information online, so it was harder to reach those needing help. 

Getting GPs to send text messages to all those registered with the charity’s phone number was effective. So was mailing people with a diagnosis directly. The charity also produced 50 million leaflets and 16,000 packs containing the ‘What is Alzheimer's Disease?’ booklet to pharmacies, GP surgeries and memory clinics. They encouraged people with dementia to register either online or on paper. All those registered (both online and offline) were given a phone number instead of assuming they were comfortable accessing information online. This resulted in a 6.8% engagement rate with around 50,000 leaflets ordered.

 “We needed to create long term solutions, ensure that communications were consistent and target resources to specific demographics. This meant looking at alternative touch points,“ says Information Services Manager Jess Tobin.

Tackling the digital divide in Hackney

Living within the London Borough of Hackney are a diverse range of communities that include numerous ethnic and faith groups. A key task for Polly Cziok,  Strategic Director     for Engagement, Culture and Organisational Development, is finding ways of building relationships with these communities. 

“We have had to do a lot of soul searching about how best to engage with our community and whether to follow the example of those local authorities that have gone totally online,” said Polly. ”But if you have more services that are digital, you take away an opportunity for relationship building as it transactionalises the relationship and can downgrade trust. 
Lockdown presented a huge challenge as many people did not use the internet, had no mobile phones and were unable to engage in face-to-face communication outside their bubble.  Engaging with the orthodox Jewish population in Stamford Hill, which represented nearly 10% of the community, was particularly difficult as they are not allow access to TV , radios or the internet. Communication about vaccinations had to be done through traditional methods such as putting leaflets through doors. 

Poverty was a big issue. “All our research shows us if you can't afford heating and eating, the first thing you're going to stop paying is your broadband subscription,” says Polly. “Then there are people who don’t know how to get online, those who do but can’t afford a computer and some who choose not to.” 

Libraries – those that had not been shut  -  proved to be vital resources during the pandemic attracting crowds outside waiting to use the internet. A surprise was that many digitally savvy young people from Generation Z wanted face to face communication. So researchers went to MacDonalds and other places where they congregated. The team also found producing resources for teachers about the vaccine was a good way to reach them. 

Polly’s advice is to go to where people are and never underestimate power of conversation.
“Whether we do formal kind of statutory consultation, or just broader engagement, it's about going out into the world and talking to people. And that's really important.”

Top tips

Find out where people gather to have conversations. Are these mostly digital or   face to face? Then design campaigns for specific groups using their preferred communication channels and touch points
Don’t assume that everyone has access to a computer, mobile phone or internet connection. Remember that poverty is a key factor in digital exclusion.
Don’t assume that people who use digital communications are regularly online. Some may be occasional users. 
Don’t ignore printed communication such as leaflets. Always provide a non digital alternative. 
Do take into consideration people’s cognitive ability and their need for support in using the internet.
Do be aware that if you use social media it’s hard to control the message. 
Do develop partnerships with organisations and individuals such as community groups and use services such as GPs as a way of reaching your audience. 
Do remember that communicating digitally changes the relationship you have with people, making it more transactional and less personal. This makes it harder to build trust. Keep talking to them.