We’re not meteorologists or newscasters, but residents will often turn to their local government for information during severe weather events. How bad will it be in my community? Should I drive to work? Is there school today? When will the roads be cleared? Can I park on the street? What do I do if my electricity goes out?
1. Key is constant communication during a weather event
While on a normal day it’s important to avoid flooding the newsfeed, timelines or inboxes of your residents, severe weather calls for regular updates and no time is better than ASAP. Severe weather is a time when municipalities should utilize every single communication tool within reach to spread the message.
Each time we anticipate a snow event, Communications staff stays in touch with Public Works staff before, during and after the event. Public Works has a dedicated internal email list that they use to send out relevant info to other municipal departments, including police, fire, communications, emergency prep and the manager’s office. We can only move as fast as the information comes in from Public Works, but they operate overnight shifts whenever snow is expected, so there is always someone around to send out those email updates.
We encourage constant updates from Public Works and share a succinct and timely version of what they’re telling us – brief, clear and free of jargon – on our communication channels. Again, each underlying message is the same but is written/catered to fit the audience it reaches.
2. Utilize every communication tool, aggregate from other relevant sources
All of our social media posts, e-news updates and text alerts direct residents back to the website for the latest information. This means we must be on top of our communication from the get-go. During a typical snow event, the Communications team will prepare a draft news story for our website outlining the basic details: parking ban, plowing, shoveling sidewalks, etc. Then we’ll leave that item unpublished on the website so that we can wake up early the morning of the big snow and publish it live to the site, with a few tweaks. We can do this from home, using remote access to our website, which is an absolute godsend.
Whenever possible, we repost or aggregate messages from our local schools and parks about weather-related closings, and we publicize information about warming centers in the area. We can also share information from the county, state, local electricity providers and more. Anything that might be applicable to our residents in a storm, we can retweet or summarize, while of course giving credit to the source.
3. Highlight important road conditions and travel information
The vast majority of the information sent out during a snow event is related to parking and the traveling (or the commute) since this is something that can really ruin our residents’ days if they aren’t aware of the latest developments. Many of our residents work in Chicago and either drive or take public transit home, so they’ll need to know ASAP if there’s a weather event that could affect their commute.
We gather information about accidents, road closings and other information that might affect travel. We also encourage residents to avoid traveling if it’s severe enough weather that could jeopardize their safety.
Many of our residents don’t understand that major roadways are maintained by the State’s Department of Transportation, so we try to share what information about who is responsible for what road. Also, it’s important to let residents know about the Village or City’s snow plan. In many towns, certain roads are cleared first to make them safe to travel for emergency vehicles. Someone living in a cul-de-sac may want to know why their street is one of the last priorities for snow plows, so let them know why.
As Communication professionals, we encourage elected officials to amplify the messages being sent out on official village channels (social media, website, etc). Often elected officials become important conduits for service requests after a snowstorm.
Every weather event is different, but through trial and error and experience finding out what residents value, you’ll find what the successful communication tactics are in your community.