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Podcast: Data & Engagement During COVID-19 with Brianna Sunryd, Amherst, MA

Posted on May 25, 2021


Brianna Sunryd - GovLove 2

Brianna Sunryd

Brianna Sunryd 
Communications Manager
Town of Amherst, MA
LinkedIn | Twitter


Using data to improve engagement. Brianna Sunryd, Communications Manager with the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts, joined the GovLove Phonebooth from the CivicPlus Summit conference to discuss how communication changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. She shared which engagement strategies that the Town used during COVID-19 will stay around and how data collection is used to improve the City’s website.

Host: Kirsten Wyatt

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Episode Transcription

Message  00:00

This podcast is sponsored by Whispir, the communications solution you’ve been looking for. Keeping your citizens engaged and informed is crucial. Whispir makes it easy to connect with your entire community through SMS, email, social media, voice messaging, and more. All through one platform and no coding required. To find out more, head to whispir.com. That’s whispir.com.

Kirsten Wyatt  00:38

Coming to you from the CivicPlus summit virtual conference, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government. Gov Love is produced by ELGL, the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. I’m your host, Kirsten Wyatt and today I’m joined by Brianna Sunryd of Amherst, Massachusetts. We’re proud to present today’s episode from a little experiment we tried at CivicPlus’ annual event for local government communicators. We called it the Gov love phone booth. And we invited CivicPlus event attendees to drop in and chat with Gov Love about what they were learning from the conference and our own work in local government engagement and communications. Brianna is a longtime ELGL member and contributor and it was my pleasure to welcome her to the podcast. Let’s get things started. Today we are live in the CivicPlus. Gov Love telephone booth, where we have the chance to visit with some of the attendees from the summit to learn about being a difference maker. So welcome to the Gov Love podcast comm booth, Brianna. 

Brianna Sunryd  01:44

Thanks, Kirsten, happy to be here. 

Kirsten Wyatt  01:46

I would love to hear more about you. Tell us about your career path and what brought you to the summit today?

Brianna Sunryd  01:53

Well, my name is Brianna Sunryd. I work as the communications manager and community participation officer in the town of Amherst in Massachusetts. And I’ve worked in local government technology, communications, innovations for almost 12 years now. I came to summit as a CivicPlus customer, but also as a presenter this year with my colleague, Jessica Grondin up in Portland, Maine. We actually met at Civic Summit in 2019. In person, and were supposed to speak at the conference last year in person, but COVID. So here we are back this year.

Kirsten Wyatt  02:29

Wonderful. And what is your session on, what are you speaking about?

Brianna Sunryd  02:33

So we had our session yesterday, and we talked about capitalizing on communications beyond emergency communications using the Civic ready tool. So Jessica, and I discussed different ways that we were using the solution beyond just emergency communications, like weekly news dissemination for the City of Portland or vaccine notifications and signups for the town of Amherst, as well as some internal use cases.

Kirsten Wyatt  03:03

Share with us your observations from the past year as it relates to engagement. What are some things that have changed or maybe accelerated from pre-COVID times? What’s gone away? What is here to stay?

Brianna Sunryd  03:19

Well, I’m coming, calling in from the town of Amherst, which we say where only the H is silent. We have a long history of vocal, involved, engaged community members. So obviously, when we, when we closed our doors physically to meetings and workshops, it hit our community pretty hard for those folks who were regulars coming to meetings showing up at public comment periods. So that’s kind of a one negative element. But what we also saw was increased engagement and participation from people who never showed up to any meetings. We were getting attendance at our public meetings had increased exponentially, people were consuming the videos after the meetings. And because of COVID, we were actually able to put in some new tools based off of CARES funding. So we were able to put up a an online public participation platform, we were able to bring on some digital signage downtown that has opinion polling. So you know, it started off as if we were missing something, but there were gains over time access and increase in participation and engagement with our democracy.

Kirsten Wyatt  04:34

And are those items here to stay? I mean, do you think that even when in person meetings come back or as as things get back to normal, whatever that might look like, with some of those innovations and engagement tools that you put into play during COVID stay and will they become part of of the engagement opportunities in Amherst?

Brianna Sunryd  04:56

100% there, there is no going back at This point and, you know, I always kind of talk about it not that it was a good thing to have gone through this pandemic, but there were so many silver linings, there’s so many things that I wanted to do, and we wanted to do for our community, but just didn’t have something to kind of push us and this was the push. I think there’s no going back, I think we’re looking at continuing hybrid meetings to allow people to join in from the comfort of their home, we will keep engaging online, and then we’ll start reintroducing in person elements. And I think there’s really no going back, we’re going to have to kind of take both of those and just move forward.

Kirsten Wyatt  05:36

Talk to us about the quality of the engagement that you received in using online tools. And then also, do you have any sense if the demographic that you are able to, to reach did that change at all, because you really were kind of blowing wide open the opportunity to participate? It, it wasn’t dependent anymore on, you know, in person attendance?

Brianna Sunryd  06:00

Yes, definitely. So I think with, with offering new ways of communicating online, outside of that prescribed show up for this public comment and have your three minutes, that in itself had so many built in barriers to some of our more reticent voices in our community, whether that was language, whether whether that was transportation, childcare. So we have seen that demographic shift, not only in age, but in language, we see younger people becoming more involved in joining boards and committees, because we do have data for that. As well as, take YouTube, for example, we get some information about what age range is accessing the videos. And that’s changed dramatically over the last year. So there’s a lot of built in data points that we’ve been able to see over time and compare to pre-pandemic, to now to see that we are getting younger people, more people in general, and people who weren’t showing up, who weren’t our frequent fliers, so to speak.

Kirsten Wyatt  07:03

Talk to us about data collection, and how that factors into your work. I’ve long admired you from afar, because you really seem to look at engagement as you know, a two way you know full feedback loop process and you know, someone that’s using data to be thoughtful about how and when you engage. But talk to us about how that has been even more critical during COVID in understanding the the topics and the issues that your community is most interested in.

Brianna Sunryd  07:36

Definitely, you know what, I think all of us in local government have whether we know it or not troves and troves of data, it’s usually siloed. And it’s usually, we don’t do a good job making sense of the data and pulling it together to tell a story whether it’s visually or to make decisions. So So pre-COVID, we have a lot of information, a lot of data, mostly mostly quantitative data. And so what we’ve really done over the last year is connect some of those data sets to a more qualitative data where we’re asking more rich and robust questions, open ended that we want to hear from our community and how we can kind of connect that back to our actual demographic data, or other quantitative data to tell a rich story that’s accurate, but also in a way that are like we can put a report in front of our elected officials. And it talks about and they can see sentiment, not just numbers on a on a page. So it’s really the sense making of the data that we’ve kind of come full circle with kind of combining that story with the numbers, and being able to put it in front of a decision maker in a way that is digestible, and that they can make decisions based off of that. And that’s where we’ve really made a lot of gain over the last year.

Kirsten Wyatt  08:55

I love that concept of sense making and then of also, you know, you may have all of this information, but then how do you distill it down and share it with, you know, policymakers or governing board so they understand what it all means?

Brianna Sunryd  09:08

Absolutely, because you know, data is only as good as the story it tells. And so I think local governments are making big strides in that and there’s a lot of civic tech and tech space now that you know, tableau, for example, where you can take this very complicated, you know, troves and silos of data and actually, make it make sense and make it engaging and tell your story.

Kirsten Wyatt  09:37

Talk to us about how you have changed the way that your local government website or even just some of the the headlines or the news that is most important for you to share has changed and, and how have you made those adjustments so you’re being really responsive on the topics that your community is most interested in.

Brianna Sunryd  10:02

So for our municipal website, for example, we just did a little bit of a refresh with CivicPlus. And one of the things that we wanted to do is constantly monitor what people are asking, not just searching for on the site, but asking in our info email or calling on the phone about. So every month, I will talk to some key people who are customer interface points, say what are people asking, what what’s coming up that we know people are going to ask, or seasonal, and we’ve built out a top page section and some some tiles on our homepage that we kind of promote pretty heavily, we know that this is coming up, and people are starting to search for it. And one of the biggest examples is in in May, anytime in Amherst, people start searching for pools and fireworks. So you know, over time, we know to kind of front load our page and our information as well as our outreach with those topics. So touching back on the data, we are using that to kind of inform what people see when they come to our page, front and center. And that’s been pretty successful. Over over the last year, I would say

Kirsten Wyatt  11:09

I love that so much, because it reminds us that a web page isn’t just a bulletin board. I mean, it really is a living, breathing, communications tool that you have to tend, like a garden and figure out you know, what’s in season and what’s not. And, and so I love that you’re doing that. And I love that you’re working with CivicPlus to use all of this data and metrics to make your communications tools even more robust.

Brianna Sunryd  11:33

Yeah, and I have to say they’ve, you know, been a really great partner in that, you know, working with our account representative Curtis, shout out to Curtis. We’ll talk about, you know, trends and look at, you know, year in review and kind of be able to see, you know, what are areas for improvement? What are people looking for not finding? So they’ve been really helpful partners in that sense.

Kirsten Wyatt  11:55

So to not shamelessly plug my own session that’s coming up at summit in a couple of hours, but we’ll be talking about what we’re calling the new normal in local government. And it’s based on a survey that ELGL worked on in partnership with CivicPlus, Civic Pulse, the Atlas and Route 50, where we are comparing data from a survey we did last year about this time to survey, a survey that we just completed, be sharing out the results at summit here for the very first time. Talk to us about what your new normal looks like. What do you see kind of on the horizon for the next six to 12 months in your local government role that reflects where we are right now in this pandemic, and in our world today?

Brianna Sunryd  12:44

You know, that’s really been a challenge, I would say over the last three months, especially we were kind of fully in COVID response and vaccine distribution and rollout. And I would say almost as spring emerge, we kind of got this dual track of, Okay, well, let’s move forward with all these projects we have planned and initiatives. And it’s kind of, they’re running in parallel to each other, we’re still responding and pivoting to the the changing information related to the pandemic. But we kind of see this reemergence people, we had our first pop up in person outdoor workshop for a project in a walking tour, which was a real signifier of you know, we’re moving back to what this maybe new normal is, and I don’t think it will look the same at all, I think we talked a little bit about incorporating the digital engagement and online engagement, engagement and not dropping that at all and kind of pulling that into our forward approach where we incorporate those more traditional methods and elements of in person. So I think it’s really going to be about capacity and resources in local government to make both of those things happen simultaneously. And I think the challenge is, it’s not just one person who can come into the organization and make sure that that’s successful, it really has to be an, a mission and a vision of the organization and becomes a part of everybody’s role. And I think that piece will be a challenge is kind of making sure that the culture keeps up with the direction that we’re going in and how you can impact that culture within your organization to make that successful.

Kirsten Wyatt  14:20

A key concept at summit has been the idea of being a difference maker. What is, what does being a difference maker mean to you?

Brianna Sunryd  14:31

So being a difference maker it especially over the last year to me, I could think of an anecdote where I live and work in my community that I serve, and I have for several of my jobs, which I think makes a big difference. You end up walking down the street and someone says, oh, thank you for that program. But really, I would say over the last four months when we’ve been working on, we host our own vaccines clinic in an early days, there was just so much hysteria and concern, especially with some of our vulnerable populations, our seniors, and just getting handwritten notes that have come saying thank you, you saved my life, you you helped me so much, you got me into the vaccine clinic. That was really when it hit. After everybody has been remote and high in hybrid environments, you don’t have that team element, you’re not seeing your community members, because you’re closed to the public. So getting those notes and that feedback over the last few months that we actually help them, we impacted their lives in such a meaningful way that they actually wrote us a letter. That’s when I knew I was a difference maker over the last year.

Kirsten Wyatt  15:42

Okay, that made me tear up a little bit. So thank you for sharing that. And, and again, you know, kudos to CivicPlus for putting together an event that recognizes that, that everyone in local government is a difference maker, regardless of what role you’re in. Because, again, you know, as you share, it can just be an act as simple as connecting folks with the resources they need, and, and you’ve changed a life. So thank you for sharing that. So it would not be a true Gov Love podcast, phone booth if I didn’t have a couple of lightning round questions for you. So my first one is, what food did you hate as a child, but now you enjoy as an adult? 

Brianna Sunryd  16:26

100% lobster. From a girl who grew up on Cape Cod, I have to throw that out there. Big lobster fan now. 

Kirsten Wyatt  16:36

I mean, I guess I can see that. I mean, it’s not really like a something that you would give like that a lot of children would even have access to, it’s not like chicken fingers.

Brianna Sunryd  16:45

Definitely not. Although my my husband grew up in Sweden, so he he would say otherwise that he’s been, you know, eating lobsters and shrimp since he was a baby. So I was a late bloomer on the lobster front.

Kirsten Wyatt  16:56

Got it. Alright, and then what is your most controversial non political opinion?

Brianna Sunryd  17:02

Oh, my gosh, controversial non political opinion. I think you might have stumped me. Okay, we can get back to that one.

Kirsten Wyatt  17:15

Okay, perfect. Sounds good. And then another question that we always ask all of our Gulf guests. If you could be the DJ for this special episode, what song would you pick for our closing music? 

Brianna Sunryd  17:30

Oh, goodness, Kirsten, I should have had this prepared, I should have known that you were gonna ask me this. 

Kirsten Wyatt  17:36

And if you want to get back to us later, that’s totally fine. Part of being in the Gov Love phone booth is that we are talking quickly about lots of really important topics. And so if something doesn’t jump out at you, we could even pick a song for you. But we will, we will say that you selected it. So there is kind of a risk, I will say though, I mean, you never know what, but Ben and Pizza Mike, our producers, might pick for you.

Brianna Sunryd  18:00

That is risky. You know what I’m gonna get, I’m gonna get back to you in like three seconds with my choice.

Kirsten Wyatt  18:07

Okay, that sounds good. 

Brianna Sunryd  18:14

Does that mean you’re actually gonna play it. So it has to be clean, right? 

Kirsten Wyatt  18:18

We can do the Radio Edit version. So, so feel free to pick whatever you’d like. And again, you know, we found that Gov Love listeners are not all sensitive flowers. So I think they could handle they can handle some some risky lyrics. 

Brianna Sunryd  18:32

Okay, well, I don’t know the artists name. But the cover of Ginuwine’s Pony has been on my playlists. Leon Bridges, Leon Bridges’ recorded version of Ginuwine’s Pony is my choice because I feel like that just hits. 

Kirsten Wyatt  18:50

I love it. I think that you are the first person to select a Ginuwine song. So you are definitely going to be in our Hall of Fame for that as well. 

Brianna Sunryd  19:01

That’s that’s my goal. That’s my goal. 

Kirsten Wyatt  19:05

Well, thank you for joining us today and talking about all of the great work you’re doing around community engagement and communications. Thanks for also being the first visitor to the Gov Love phone booth. We will have a couple of more folks that have joined us here at summit joining us in the phone booth to talk about their experiences, both with engagement but also with being a difference maker. So Brianna thank you so much for being here. And thanks for joining us on Gov Love.  Thank you so much Kirsten, and thanks to everybody at ELGL. Thanks for listening to today’s episode. It was our pleasure to have the Gov Love phone booth at the CivicPlus summit. If you’d like Gov Love to come to your next event. Please let us know and we’d be happy to bring our microphones and our questions to interview your attendees to learn more about what they learned at your event. Give us a call or email us at [email protected]org or find us on Twitter @ELGL50.


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