By Maureen Tobin, Director of Davenport Institute, and Michael Huling, Graduate Assistant

Technological innovation has paved the way for a new era of communication. From the internet and social media to smart phones and virtual meetings, technology has become a critical part of the professional communicators toolbox and deeply embedded in American social life. The COVID-19 pandemic shifted the basis for virtual communication from convenience to necessity, as in-person gatherings were abruptly paused in early 2020. 

Over the past year, local governments have increasingly embraced virtual communication out of necessity, but at the same time most have developed an appreciation for it as a more heavily relied upon resource going into the future. In contrast, the value of being able to pick-up the phone to make a check-in call to a shut-in senior or the ability to reach out to trusted advisors/leaders in hard to reach communities to assist in sharing information by word of mouth have emerged as just as significant and necessary.

During the pandemic, traditional in-person meetings and events were impossible due to public health restrictions imposed throughout the world. For local government, this presented a very real challenge. The basis of democracy is built upon our right to assemble and provide input to our government and—in practice—this is most regularly seen in local government, where access to government leaders is generally more readily available. At a critical time, residents not only lost the opportunity to discuss their problems and ideas with local leaders, but faced unprecedented challenges brought on by the pandemic. 

The loss of in-person discussion and the emergence of COVID-related issues created a challenging dynamic for local governments at a time when critical health and safety information, financial assistance information, and important calls to action needed to be disseminated to all, particularly the most vulnerable and hard to reach populations. Local officials had to find a way to connect with all residents—not just those already involved and aware of municipal processes. 

Virtual communication became a crucial tool to fill the engagement gap, but it did not solve the problem of engaging with our most vulnerable and hard to reach communities. At the same time local governments were experimenting with new and different technology to expand the capability of virtual communications, cities were also reaching out by calling individual residents and business owners,  posting hard copy signage in different languages, and connecting with trusted advisors and leaders of vulnerable communities to share vital public health information.

While many “new faces” began attending virtual meetings and events, the struggle of reaching those without the technological experience or access remained. Establishing COVID information sites became common practice for cities nationwide, as did equipping residents with important knowledge and resources such as: COVID test and vaccine locations, rental relief, small business grants, utility bill programs, virtual events, donation drives, etc. In the webinar series, “A Year Later: Connectivity and COVID-19” with ELGL, Mountain View, California’s City Manager Kimbra McCarthy shared that they established a twice weekly newsletter called “The Briefing,” which later moved to weekly. In the same webinar, Jennifer Casey, Director of Communications in the City of Collierville, Tennessee shared that they began calling all of their small businesses to share important information. Similarly, the City of Morgan Hill’s Centennial Senior Center called seniors to check-in on their well-being and explain how the drive-through senior lunch pick-up worked

The pandemic forced cities to experiment with new approaches to communication and engagement, in many cases pushing forward technological options that had been previously considered and discussed, but never fully vetted or implemented. The adaptability of local governments and residents is an encouraging sign moving forward, as “normalcy” may look a bit different than we remember. Many of these communication/engagement changes are likely to remain post-COVID due to their success, but it will continue to be very important to remain diversified and flexible in communicating and engaging with residents. 

If the pandemic taught us anything, it was to be flexible, adaptable, creative, and constantly look for ways to better connect with our community members. That same commitment to continuous improvement to best meet the diverse needs of the populations we serve will be a hallmark of good government communications and engagement moving forward. The bar has been set high after our experience of the pandemic, but it appears that local governments are up to the challenge.

If you are interested in learning more about effective public engagement and developing your professional skills, check out Davenport Institute’s Professional Certificate in Public Engagement. The next offering begins June 29, 2021 and spots are still open.