10 February 2021

How we communicate with our customers is every bit as important as what we say to them. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking a serious message must be delivered in a formal way.

As housing associations, we regularly communicate with customers about things which have significant implications. In these circumstances it is right that we think very carefully about what we say. But we must never focus so much on this that we forget how important it is to make sure the messages reach the audience they are intended for. In communication, the how is every bit as important as the what.

At Citizen we have 40 high-rise buildings across the West Midlands. Though we have always shared fire safety information with customers when they move into their homes and made it accessible on our website, intelligence from our housing officers told us there was still an issue around awareness on this crucial issue. We knew we needed to do more.

We started by looking at what we were already providing and what problems this may be causing for customers. In short, we were giving detailed and complicated text provided in English with the opportunity to have this translated on request.

While the information was robust and on the money in terms of technical fire safety, it was clear we couldn’t honestly say that we were doing all that we could to educate our customers.

We realised we needed to proactively provide focused, simple and engaging information which got across the most important elements of our message. We wanted to ask as little of our customers as possible – to put the information on a plate.

From this came the idea for a high-quality, visually engaging mailout with a QR code linking to a short animation.

Working closely with colleagues in our Housing and Asset Management and Safety Teams, and West Midlands Fire Service - who we already have a very close working relationship with – we were able to create our central messages.

But we knew this was not enough. Our tower blocks are in Coventry and Birmingham and our customer-based is extremely diverse. If you live in a block and English isn’t your first language, then the likelihood of you engaging with guidance provided only in English are likely to be significantly lower.

We did some work to assess the nationalities of people in our blocks and which languages they had requested most from our translation service. This, together with some local intelligence from our Housing Team, helped us to come up with a list of seven languages which we could be confident would make the information accessible for everyone in the blocks.

We used different voiceover artists to record translated versions of the animation script – creating the animation itself in a way which chunked the content up to make this an easier process.

We also had the physical information we posted out translated, adding a separate QR code to the artwork which anyone can scan to land on a page on our website which instantly gives them access to a translated version of the information and animation.

The end result? All our tower block customers (nearly 3,000 of them) have received a personalised, high-quality document linking them to this crucial guidance.

The document itself is made from high-quality card and presented in a sleeve with a note on the front to keep it somewhere safe. This means that if customers ever need to check it again, they can.

To make this sustainable we also had a bulk of non-personalised versions of the information produced and these will be a standard part of our tenancy welcome pack to all new customers who we let a flat in a tower block to from now on.

This piece of work has elevated the delivery of this crucial information. We have gone from something which was difficult to understand, hard to access on demand and only presented in English to something which is engaging and accessible to anyone who needs it.

We’ve asked as little of our customers as we can and that is what we must strive to do.

There are many lessons from this piece of work for us and we plan to make this our standard approach to communication.

But the main lesson is this – when we convey information like this we must put as much energy into how we do it as what we say.

To view the fire safety animation and information click here.

For more insight and guidance on choosing the best channels for resident communication, join the afternoon plenary at the Building and Fire Safety in Housing conference, taking place on Monday 22 February.

Steve Hayes

Steve Hayes is Head of Communications at Citizen.

How Citizen is using QR codes to educate residents on fire safety