Building Your Strategic Communications Plan for COVID-19

Posted on March 24, 2020

kimbra and chris

This guest blog is by Kimbra McCarthy, City Manager, and Chris Hsiung, Deputy Police Chief/Strategic Communications Team Lead, City of Mountain View, California

There is typically a honeymoon period when an organization gets a new City Manager, with plenty of time to focus on relationship-building, active listening, and gathering feedback for what is working well and what people would like to see transformed. 

Starting as a new City Manager on March 2, there would be no honeymoon or ramp up period. Instead, there was a global pandemic to react to, which required a focus on creating a strategic communications plan to address the emerging crisis.  This plan has been branded #TogetherMV. 

Like a tsunami with relentlessly building waves of issues, considerations, and impacts on local government, the COVID-19 crisis has affected, and will continue to affect, communities across this country. Even with advanced preparation, the myriad of decisions facing local government leaders is nonstop, with information changing by the hour.  

Last week, a series of public health orders from a number of San Francisco Bay Area counties morphed into a statewide “stay at home order” from the California Governor’s office. This crisis quickly created a need to properly inform a variety of community stakeholders, hungry for information but also overwhelmed with the amount of COVID-19 news flooding the media.

For the City of Mountain View, this meant quickly and decisively forming a Strategic Communications Team composed of a cross section of city department communicators and breaking away from the, “this is how we’ve always done it” mindset.  

COVID-19 crisis communications will challenge every aspect of your communications strategy and will quickly expose your organizational pain points.

The key to success is to identify these pain points, adapt to the demands at hand, and think out of the box. This means that everyone on the team must be collaborative, creative, able to pivot, and remain focused on the same goal.  

It is imperative to have your communications person or team plugged in and reporting directly to the top of the organization. In Mountain View, the Strategic Communications Team Lead reports directly to the City Manager, with ideas and information flowing both ways, along with daily check-ins. An organization must resist the urge to bury the communications team too far down the org chart. Doing so creates bureaucratic layers of approval which translates into time wasted.

Worse yet, some organizations require tacit approval of statements or replies to social media comments prior to dissemination. The speed of social media, the speed of misinformation, and the speed of the COVID-19 crisis does not allow for this. In this crisis, time is the one commodity you will always be short of. This requires trust, respect, and empowering team members to make decisions. 

Your crisis messaging strategy must be built around different, but related, audiences. For obvious reasons, the public and your community is a primary stakeholder.  But in a crisis like COVID-19, where many people have been forced to work from home, the business community and your employees also face severe disruptions to how they get work done. 

To that end, the strategy at the City of Mountain View was to quickly establish itself as the “go to” source of local information, set a consistent tone of assurance, and consistently educate the community, businesses, and employees alike.

This has been key in quickly dispelling rumors, informing the City Council with daily updates, educating department heads on community sentiment and other important news, and informing the community at the same time. Start early on letting your community know that YOU are or will be the trusted source of information in this crisis. Differentiate your voice, tone, and content to rise above the noise of everything else COVID-19 related.

Here’s how to build your playbook for success: 

  1. Identify 3 key overlapping stakeholder groups to inform and interact with: the community, your own employees, and elected policy makers.
    • Community:  Already inundated with national COVID-19 news, residents will be barraged with an overwhelming amount of information.  The opportunity here is to provide quality localized content. Our approach was to create a community newsletter called The Briefing, which is mobile optimized and easy to sign up (e.g. “Text MVCOVID to 22828”). This newsletter, sent daily to residents, saw exponential growth in the first week of texting to sign up for the newsletter. A quick 3-question survey at the end of the week confirmed our hunch: 93% of respondents overwhelmingly liked the newsletter and our tone of positivity, altruism, empathy, and localized information.
    • Employees: Most of our employees were sent home because they were deemed “non-essential.” This is not the way modern government works; there are very few staff that telecommute or work from home.  Most of our employees have never performed tasks from home such as accessing timecards, communicating through web email, logging onto the intranet, conducting video meetings, among many other logistical tasks we take for granted from the office.  On top of that, employees are likely worried about the crisis at hand, are watching their children while trying to work, and can feel overwhelmed or isolated. Our solution was to create a similar mobile friendly daily internal briefing newsletter that addressed these types of issues to form a connection back to the City and our colleagues. The digital briefing is not just a COVID-19 update (which it is) but also contains mini-campaigns for employees to send selfies from their new home offices (#WFHselfies) and new cubicle mates (children and pets galore!)  We try to inject humor into the newsletter where appropriate, and include links to interesting articles and other learning opportunities. Staff provide feedback on things they want to see in the briefing in future days. Like the community newsletter, city staff greatly appreciate the ability to stay informed and connected to each other. 
    • Policy Makers: Our elected officials receive a briefing three days a week on the latest COVID-19 news, regional actions, federal and state legislative actions, operational updates, and other fast moving impacts.  The Mountain View City Council is a regional leader, and acted fast to provide $500,000 to our community in rent relief funding to those who are affected by lost income, with further actions to help small businesses, homeowners, and homeless and other vulnerable residents,. All of these decisions required by the hour changes and updates to our web page. 
  1. Get a video conference platform implemented and train everyone. It has helped greatly with continuity of operations and continuing meetings on important subjects.
  2. Consider a “designated survivor” strategy of splitting up your essential staff to not have everyone in the office in case exposures take place. Identify a line of succession for leadership roles at least three people deep.
  3. Self Care. Self Care. Self Care. Make sure you and your colleagues are taking time for yourself to re-energize and recharge.  Sleep is the most profound remedy for a stressful day. Exercise, meditation, practicing mindfulness, reading, coloring (yes, it’s for adults too!), crossword puzzles, and enjoying time with your family will help get your mind off the ever-present crisis at hand. 
  4. Embed a web developer on your communications team. Create a FAQs and Rumors page, as well as special resources pages, and use your social platforms to point at that location. With the incredible amount of information that needs to go out, it becomes more important to educate the public on where to look for answers versus what the actual answer is. This does not mean you stop posting and trying to inform, you are primarily sharing what the community needs to know right now. Your web developer will likely need to make daily, if not hourly, changes to meet demand, highlight certain areas/answers.
  5. Being agile and adaptive is key. This is a new crisis that will play out, likely over weeks or months. Thinking out of the box and being creative will address a lot of issues as they come up. Most of the things you decide and act upon will likely change or be reprioritized with something else.
  6. People will want to help (shopping for elderly, delivering meals, etc). Curate and provide a list of those agencies to help connect the dots.
  7.  What to do with kids while working at home is a big consideration for most of us. Post content like online library resources, virtual recreation center activities, live streamed book reading, or filmed activities for the kids.
  8. Post information on what businesses and restaurants are open. Everyone wants to know what is open, and you will also be supporting your local restaurants. 
  9. Once a “shelter in place” order is in effect, make sure to post information on what this means.  What is allowed to stay open (grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies), what people can do outside (play in green space, go on walks), what is closed (playgrounds, pools), identify what “social distancing” means (stay 6 ft. away from each other). You will spend a lot of time with specific questions, so make sure to park this information on the FAQ. 

We are indeed in unprecedented times. The more we demonstrate our compassion and resolve, along with proactive communication, the more local government will be seen as a trusted and credible leader during this evolving crisis.  

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