2020 was a calendar of one crisis after another: COVID-19, racial justice demonstrations in the streets and election-related chaos. Cities and towns across America this year found themselves overwhelmed and, in many cases, on their own when it came to providing direction during a rapidly evolving pandemic. Operations plans that would, in ordinary times, be developed over weeks or months needed to come together in hours or days. At the same time, municipal officials had to communicate clearly and often about safety protocols and new processes for accessing essential services such as schools, public transportation, food pantries and shelters that would continue to function and be available to residents who relied on them.
Forced to navigate the unchartered waters of a global pandemic, many municipalities turned to outside crisis management and communications firms for support to help them lead and convey a sense of calm and control to a multitude of stakeholder groups including families with school-age children, small business owners, and senior citizens.
The sheer number of communications required to ensure an informed citizenry at the time when wide-spread closures were occurring for the first time were staggering. They included—but were by no means limited to—press releases pertaining to COVID testing and case counts, letters to local organizations informing them of municipal regulations, website and social media content and scripts for phone banks. All those and much more were needed so that residents were aware of what actions their local leaders were taking to keep them safe and so they knew who to contact in the event they needed information or assistance.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '21 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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These aren’t your typical firm-client relationships, where you balance a scope of work with other ongoing accounts, each with an allotted amount of staff and time. This is an all-hands-on-deck, 24/7 crisis response for the duration of an intense partnership. Both parties needed to be comfortable with that reality when agreeing to work together. While some of issues-management projects may be short-term, others such as COVID response or a major emergency such as a natural gas explosion or a bridge collapse can persist for weeks or even months.
Having worked side by side with one of Massachusetts’ largest cities during the onset of COVID, our firm would like to offer the following best practices when providing communications support to city or town governments.
The state of the state. Any guidelines or orders mandated by the municipality will be superseded by state and/or federal orders. Therefore, it’s critical that you follow as many public information channels as possible so you’re familiar with the very latest news, regulations and mandates your client may be subject to. Don’t assume municipal employees or elected officials are consuming news 24/7. In many cases, they’ll be overwhelmed with the challenges in front of them.
Being familiar with the issues under consideration and the decisions being made at higher levels of government will help you provide proof points to justify your recommendations. Consider sharing daily news clips of how other municipalities, locally and nationally, are issuing regulations or creatively solving shared problems. For an unprecedented crisis like COVID, when everyone is learning on the fly, the additional context will be especially helpful and informative.
Keep it brief. Residents don’t want to read long, in-depth emails or texts. When sending out electronic communications, stay focused on high-level messages and need-to-know information only. Yes, you should anticipate potential follow-up questions and provide additional resources but don’t write 1,000 words when 250 will do. You can always hyperlink to web pages with more specific information for a particular stakeholder group.
Provide advanced notice. We all need time to process information and adjust. For instance, families may need a backup plan for child/elderly care and those whose loved ones rely on home healthcare workers may need to come up with an alternative plan. Whenever possible, provide residents with ample notice of a new ordinance such as a curfew or stay-at-home order and continue to remind them as that change goes into effect. Also, be sure to communicate with partners such as the school district, first responders, and city/town departments prior to general announcements so they aren’t caught flatfooted when they start getting questions about how they will be impacted. If the Superintendent of Schools or head of a major non-profit are receiving press calls and saying they weren’t consulted, it’s not a good look for anyone and doesn’t inspire confidence.
Don’t allow a messaging vacuum. Be sure to give municipal leaders the information they need to speak confidently about the situation. While top city/town staff should be the first to communicate, appreciate that support staff can be effective ambassadors as well and don’t let them be caught off-guard if they get a question from constituents about an issue. Make sure they receive the latest developments from the state as well as important details such as transportation schedules, school safety protocols and deadlines for residents and/or businesses to apply for financial assistance if available. Anyone who’s authorized to share information or answer questions from the public must have the same messaging; no one should be using yesterday’s messages when today’s may be different.
Choose your channel. Understand how different constituents typically receive information. Are they most comfortable with email, a flyer, a phone call, a social media post or a text message? You should plan for a multi-channel strategy to meet residents where they are and to ensure no one is left in the dark. That means knowing how many languages are needed for translation services and doing your best to anticipate what resources will be needed for all major content. It helps having individuals who are native speakers review drafts early to ensure the correct messages are being conveyed.
Too much is rarely enough. Just as we found with many of our private-sector clients in early 2020, the steady stream of communications that might have proven a bit of an annoyance in normal times were warmly welcomed at the onset of COVID. Remember that, especially during uncertainty, people look to their leaders to guide them and to reassure them that everything will be okay. During a major crisis that impacts everyone, don’t worry about sharing too often, as long as those communications are clear. In a crisis, it’s a lack of communication that sows confusion.
T.J. Winick is a Senior Vice President at Solomon, McCown & Cence.