At the beginning of 2020, when contemplating their careers, most city and county managers could reasonably expect to encounter a disaster at some point—a flood, wildfire, tornado, or industrial accident. In one fell swoop, the coronavirus pandemic has made all of them emergency managers for the foreseeable future. As they continue to grapple with COVID-19, social media can help with their risk communication and community engagement efforts.
Drawing on scholarship and practitioner guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), this article outlines engagement strategies that pertain to the pandemic and other possible disasters. This knowledge is pertinent not only because of the pandemic, for communities must also prepare for other disasters looming in the short term. Extreme weather and other hazards—natural and man-made—will not wait for the pandemic to end, and such events have already exposed operational inadequacies. In short, the pandemic has made our communities more vulnerable and establishes the conditions for compounding events. Therefore, preparing residents for what is to come and enhancing our abilities to effectively communicate that risk represent critical tasks.
While in no way comprehensive, this article discusses different ways for local governments to engage residents (1) as partners to reduce their exposure to risk, (2) as customers to serve and satisfy, and (3) as citizens with whom to discuss future policy decisions. Local governments pursue these relationships during normal times, and they certainly apply during disasters.1
My own research informs this effort; I have interviewed many emergency managers and analyzed tens of thousands of social media messages from federal, state, and local agencies. Local government managers and communications teams are certainly familiar with many of these concepts, but my hope is to offer a helpful idea or two to assist as they deal with the pandemic and whatever comes next.
Partners to Reduce Community Risk
Local governments can empower residents as partners by giving them the information they need to reduce their exposure to risk. Ideally, this will affect—or reinforce—related behavioral changes such as social distancing or disaster preparedness practices. Messages should be straightforward and consistent, and they should articulate the specific actions residents need to take to make them and their families safer.
A number of sources provide content for local governments to reuse. For example, the CDC offers sample COVID-19 guidance on social distancing, protecting older adults, stopping the spread, dealing with personal stress, and making cloth face coverings and other protective actions. This content provides clear and specific language that tells people exactly what to do, and in so doing aligns with evidence-based best practices identified within disaster research.2 Furthermore, the CDC recognizes that different applications—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—have different audiences and different uses. Facebook reaches the broadest audience and allows for longer messages. Twitter messages are shorter, more news-related, and often direct readers to the CDC website.
For Instagram, messages speak to a younger audience. With the influx of younger adults contracting the disease, the CDC emphasizes “if you have certain underlying medical conditions, you are at an increased risk of severe illness from #COVID19, no matter your age.” Guidance for local governments to borrow for content includes:
• Stay home if possible.
• Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
• Wear a face covering when in public.
• Stay at least 6 feet away from others and avoid large crowds.
• Take everyday preventive actions: wash hands often and avoid touching face, nose, and eyes.
• Have over-the-counter medicines, medical supplies (like tissues), and extra necessary prescriptions.
• Have extra household items and groceries on hand.
• Make a plan for what to do if you or loved ones get sick.
• Routinely clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that are touched often.
• Consult with your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of COVID-19.
In response to community outbreaks or other rapid onset events (e.g., extreme weather, earthquakes, and mass shootings), local government officials should re-familiarize themselves concerning how to write effective warning messages. Leveraging decades of research from the fields of sociology and communication as well as their own expert interviews, Jeannette Sutton, a University of Kentucky professor, and Erica Kuligowski, a social scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, recommend including a description of the impending hazard and its likely consequences, the location of those affected, and explicit guidance on what people should do and when they should do it.3 Specifically, they advise when crafting warning messages to do the following:
• Use ALL CAPS for keywords to increase urgency.
• Specify the threat and its impact.
• Clearly identify the location of impact.
• Use imperative language to instruct protective actions.
• Include a #hashtag.
• Include visual imagery as part of the message.
Here is an example message about a hypothetical radiological incident:
NUCLEAR EXPLOSION in Southern California. High levels of radiation in Los Angeles are blowing toward Orange County & will cause severe illness and death. Do NOT drive. TAKE SHELTER NOW in a sturdy building, shut windows/doors; stay and wait further instruction. #CAExplosion.
This message includes all critical components that are essential whereas incomplete messages leave people searching for additional guidance and reduce the likelihood that they will take protective actions in a timely fashion.
Disaster preparedness messages are important as well. People are not prepared for disasters; research confirms this again and again. Prior to urgent events, local governments should promote preparedness to their residents. With public sector resources diminished, community resilience (the ability of a community to weather and recover from an extreme event) increasingly depends on individual preparedness. Well-designed messages are imperative to keep the community vigilant and informed about what they can do to keep their families safe. FEMA offers some examples, and I include a link at the end of this article.4
In my research, I identify best practices from state agencies, such as making family emergency plans that articulate what to do, where to go, and how to communicate with loved ones during a disaster. Another essential message has to do with assembling emergency supply kits to include water, nonperishable food, flashlights, first aid kits, radios, and batteries. Based on a community’s susceptibility to specific hazards, local governments can also educate residents about the nature of those hazards and related risks, and they can outline specific protective action guidance. For example, a state agency posted a straightforward message about flooding, “18 inches of swiftly moving water can carry away a large vehicle. Turn Around Don’t Drown.” After interviewing state public information officers and analyzing their preparedness messages, I have made recommendations regarding how agencies should approach preparedness campaigns:
• Be persistent. Be consistent. And repeat the message.
• Replace vague encouragement with specific steps that people can take to prepare for disasters. Do not assume people will take the time to seek out other sources to find the answers.
• Discuss the consequences of being unprepared for disasters. Use specific examples. Communicate the risk of inaction.
• Don’t reinvent the wheel. Reuse content from other trusted sources such as FEMA.
• Do not forget about businesses and other organizations. Adapting household guidance messages (e.g., Making a Plan and Supply Kits) to organizations offers an approach.5
In all, the idea is that by empowering residents and businesses to prepare, local governments can help to build stronger, more resilient communities. In dire situations, people who can take care of themselves for longer periods of time help their communities by freeing up resources for the most vulnerable among us.
Customers to Serve
During normal, everyday operations, local governments spend considerable effort developing their social media presence. Much of this content has to do with letting residents know where, when, and how to access public services. Therefore, communicating service disruptions and event cancellations represent a pertinent component of pandemic and other disaster messaging.
In response to COVID-19, cities and counties have had to (1) modify waste collection schedules, (2) suspend transit service, (3) cancel recreational activities and other events, (4) close city offices, and (5) cancel public meetings or transition them to online channels such as Zoom. Residents need to know these new policies and should be given information on when services might be offered again. This type of engagement can complement risk communication efforts by letting the community know they are not operating in normal times—as if they needed to be reminded. More importantly, though, local governments can reiterate stay-at-home orders, social distancing mandates, and other protective action orders such as wearing face coverings as part of these messages. Local governments are also in a position to amplify emerging policies regarding testing, contact tracing, and supported isolation that is vital to limit outbreaks moving forward.
Information flow need not be one way. Local governments can monitor for questions or requests and respond accordingly. Personnel should prioritize comments and replies to their content and enable direct messaging so that residents feel free to communicate more privately. Moreover, team members can initiate such interactions by asking for feedback on service quality or about community needs.
Many communications teams already engage in such two-way dialogue. However, encouraging such practices creates work for personnel and the expectation of follow-up, whereas residents anticipate responsiveness. If a communications team does not have the time and personnel to monitor and respond, they should not encourage dialogue in the first place and should make it clear to residents that any request should be communicated through other, more appropriate channels such as 311 or 911.
Relationship building is a component of good customer service. During these extraordinary times, local governments can convey stories about the service and dedication of local government personnel, for it is important to educate residents about what their local authorities are doing for their communities. After Hurricane Florence in 2018, I analyzed all the Facebook posts from affected cities in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, and the most liked post (out of all of them) included a video of a toddler waving goodbye to her firefighter parent leaving for a 48-hour shift. Telling the story of how personnel contribute to protecting their communities, the sacrifices they make, and how hard they work can put a personal face on local government and recognize personnel for their dedication. As residents isolate, any interaction they have with such content may help to foster a stronger relationship between them and their local government.
Citizens to Engage in Dialogue
The pandemic’s economic and financial impacts will be severe and long-lasting. Local governments will have to make difficult and far-reaching budgetary decisions, and they will have to negotiate what the new normal looks like in terms of services offered and the extent to which services will be offered when the pandemic abates. When local governments substantively engage residents in this type of decision-making, they facilitate citizen participation. This type of interaction is relatively uncommon on Facebook and Twitter, which are more useful for information sharing than for careful deliberation. Therefore, it is imperative not to conflate engagement statistics (e.g., reactions, replies, and retweets) with meaningful dialogue. Such statistics may provide an initial indicator of preference or level of interest, but unless they contribute to a larger, more deliberative dialogue on difficult problems, they do not create meaningful citizen participation.
Thomas Bryer, a University of Central Florida professor, asserts that social media managers who successfully engender participation appear to act as neutral conveners, “unafraid of what citizens will say and encouraging of assenting and dissenting views.” However, in addition to engendering positive dialogue, Professor Bryer notes “misinformation, erroneous information, or libel can spread just as quickly” and “social media can turn public opinion and action rapidly in any given direction.”6 As a result, local governments cannot control the conversation. Moreover, there are political risks for officials and agencies associated with such conversations. During and after disasters, people seek out meaning and accountability, and while leaders formulate and convey narratives about the event, they often refrain from inviting such open, unpredictable content.7 Consequently, those decisions deny the public a voice and short circuit feedback to officials.
In a situation like COVID-19, people express frustration and urge for the cessation of social distancing policies or protest the suggestion that they wear face coverings. Not all decisions should be open for extended deliberation, especially evidence-based policies pertaining to public health. In those cases, authorities may consider explaining the rationale to the public in order to undercut false rumors and misinformation. Local governments should take on this job if they are able. Moreover, social media managers should not abdicate their responsibility to fact check and correct false rumors. This is not an easy job when misinformation abounds and conversations tend be polarized, but it is necessary in order to keep the public informed with factual information.
With this pandemic comes a remarkable amount of information from many sources—some reliable, some not. Misinformation and disinformation, much of it designed by self-interested actors to confuse, obfuscate, and misdirect, can overwhelm people’s ability to make sound decisions about what protective actions to take. It also sows confusion, frustration, and dissension. Facebook and Twitter algorithms privilege such divisive rhetoric. In a previous PM article, Professor Bryer suggested local governments abandon those applications “and not contribute to their destructive tendencies by giving them more audience.”8 In light of the pandemic, I advise to stay active, provide guidance, and take Professor Bryer’s alternative route of innovating to engage residents in more meaningful ways. Local governments perform a valuable service by calmly disseminating straightforward, evidence-based content.
• They curate and reuse guidance from subject matter experts to inform residents’ protective action decision-making—whether about the pandemic or other hazards on the horizon. This support engages residents as partners to promote public health and build more resilient communities.
• They remind residents of the gravity of the situation by communicating service disruptions. Furthermore, local governments serve a vital customer service role by responding to questions and requests for help.
• They can convene deliberative conversations about how communities move forward, and they serve a vital role by providing fact-checking and rumor-control functions for the good of their communities’ information ecosystems.
Engaging the community in these ways will pay dividends in the future in the form of healthier communities who trust their local governments to do the right thing and look after their best interests.
ENDNOTES AND RESOURCES
1 Thomas, John Clayton. 2012. Citizen, Customer, Partner: Engaging the Public in Public Management. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
2 Sutton, Jeannette, and Erica D. Kuligowski. 2019. Alerts and Warnings on Short Messaging Channels: Guidance from an Expert Panel Process. Natural Hazards Review, 20(2), 1-10.
5 Wukich, Clayton. 2019. Preparing for Disaster: Social Media Use for Household, Organizational, and Community Preparedness. Risk, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy, 10(2), 233-260.
6 Bryer, Thomas A. 2013. Designing Social Media Strategies for Effective Citizen Engagement: A Case Example and Model. National Civic Review, 102(1), 43-50.
7 Boin, Arjen, Paul Hart, Eric Stern, and Bengt Sundelius. 2017. The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership Under Pressure. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
8 Bryer, Thomas. 2020. Social Media in Local Government: Leave or Experiment: A Philosophical Look at How Best to Navigate the Online World. Public Management, April, 35-38.