Mar 23

Tips from the municipal communications world amidst COVID-19

If you’re reading this from home, I hope your remote workday is going well and includes an all-day pajama party. If you are someone who is still out there in the world, thank you for the important work you are doing.

Workforces across the world have gone through major changes as COVID-19 continues to change our lives day-by-day, hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute. Everyone is trying to adapt to this new form of daily life. For some that has been less work and more time taking care of family. Others have been busier than ever before (thank you grocery store and supply chain workers), and that includes us PR folks.

In an odd way, we’re lucky at Sabo PR because, for the better or worse, we’re seasoned in crisis communication so dealing with crises isn’t new for us. But few things compare to the scope of the COVID-19 outbreak and its effect on our clients nearly across the board.

One of many unique situations that has come from all of this is communication for municipalities. Very rarely, if ever, have city and township offices closed their doors to the public. This has presented a new set of challenges not just for our municipal clients at SPR, but for other firms who work with similar clients, in-house communication pros and the municipal employees.

The last two weeks have forced us and our municipal friends to adapt to this new environment and to journey somewhat into the unknown when it comes to communicating with residents. We have found a few tactics that have worked well across the board and hope they can provide some guidance as you navigate through your own communication needs.

Think about the residents

This is priority No. 1. When providing updates, it is essential to consider why each message is important to residents. Knowing the appropriate frequency and relevance of the information being shared can avoid overwhelming residents, diluting the message and prevent people from hitting the unfollow button on social media. Put on your residential hat. What information would you want to know within your community? Why would you care if you were a resident? Just because newsrooms and government organizations are sending out information on a more frequent basis, doesn’t always mean you need to share. Often, less is more.

Go to the source

Federal, state and local health departments should be the main resources to stay updated. This eliminates the risk of facts being skewed, opinions being added and incomplete information being released. You want the facts, not speculation, which often just leads to worry. Not only does this help municipalities share the correct information, it encourages residents to follow and share material from those channels while following best practices.

Don’t be an alarmist

It can be easy to get caught up in all the information and breaking news, which seems to occur almost by the minute. But a municipality’s primary responsibility is to be of service to its residents and businesses, and part of that includes presenting the facts in a calm and professional manner. This is a result of using government resources as they practice the same messaging. It also ties back in to thinking about residents. Would you want your city or township to sound panicked and be updated by constant reminders of the situation we are in? Focus on the solutions, people already know about the problem and don’t need a reminder.

Provide alternatives

This is part of what focusing on solutions entails. All of our municipal clients and most others around West Michigan have closed their doors to the public, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t working. Municipalities offer a wide range of services, many of which can be conducted remotely. Whether it’s paying a bill, filling out a permit form, obtaining a certain license or requesting an inspection, many of these tasks and much more can be done online or over the phone. This is a great opportunity to remind residents of all the electronic resources a municipality can offer.

While each client is slightly different, these messages can apply universally. As you have read before, SPR prides itself in its “roller skate” mentality. We can be going in one direction at a steady pace, then turn on a dime and go full speed ahead at a moment’s notice. We do this by staying calm and focusing on the solution rather than how severe something may be. And while this situation may be unique in many ways, it’s also no different.

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