Jul 27

Communicating in the Age of COVID-19: How Can Municipalities Improve?

Over the past 16 months, it’s become increasingly clear that municipalities, government agencies and healthcare systems are essential sources of vital information for community members. I’ve spent the past two years in Southwest Michigan, most recently at a county health department.

Public health has been underfunded for years. Local health departments work with minimal staff – depending on grant funding year by year for various programs to run such as nutrition, sexual health, young parenting education and more. Public health nurses are hard to come by as government organizations don’t have the luxury to pay a higher wage or offer incentives.

All 80 employees of the health department where I worked put in long hours for months to educate residents and help keep them safe from COVID-19 – providing information on testing locations, helping assisted living facilities test employees and residents, providing housing for residents without a home to quarantine and, most recently, getting the COVID-19 vaccine into as many arms as possible.

As the COVID-19 hotline lead, I heard firsthand the confusion alternating with panic from residents throughout the pandemic as new surges forced restaurant and business closures and canceled weddings, funerals and family gatherings. I listened to stories of loved ones in assisted living forced to be alone, children who had to be quarantined and more.

I’m no stranger to government communications. When I left Grand Rapids two years ago, I was already convinced of the value of communicating with residents, especially after working through the PFAS crisis in Plainfield Township. Making sure residents had answers to their questions and felt comfortable working with their local government officials has always been extremely important to me. That’s one of the reasons I chose to return to Sabo PR – to work with a team that values communicating with residents across West Michigan.

I’ve seen how poor communication tactics can hurt communities and leave residents confused and seeking information on their own – through social media, unreliable websites or misinformed neighbors. Now that I have returned to Sabo PR and am working closely with the City of Wyoming, I’ve doubled my commitment to be seen as a credible resource for accurate, timely information.

 

While we’ve come a long way from March 2020 in our understanding of COVID-19, public trust in government organizations continues to decline. Misinformation abounds. The loudest voices often rule the day – but that should not be the case.

How can we work to change this?

Be accessible

Posting on social media and your website is great – and should continue. Just don’t forget about those folks who don’t have access to the internet or internet-capable devices. I watched the phones at the health department ring back-to-back from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Though it takes time and isn’t the most convenient way to get information out, one phone call can make a huge difference for some residents.

Go beyond Facebook

Again, social media is great and can reach a large amount of people. But don’t forget about direct postcards, door hangers or flyers in local hangouts, such as coffee shops, grocery stores, laundromats and barber shops. Include information in your newsletters, utility bills and other ways you connect with your stakeholders.

Be present in your communities

Find local community events and ask to partner, set up a table, attend, promote, whatever you can do. Do your best to be more than the city, township or department. Connect face-to-face with your stakeholders. It’s critical to build relationships with key partners in our community so if there’s ever (and let’s hope not) another major public emergency, we can lean on our community partners.

And don’t forget – you have friends at Sabo PR who can help with all the above and more.


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