The Magic of Being Prepared: Why proactive communication is king.
The trouble with a crisis is, you rarely see it coming. And most of the time, a critical element to preventing, preparing for, managing, and learning from a crisis is transparent communication. In the twenty-first century, an effective communication strategy is heavily tied to technology. Every government communicator wants to implement technology capable of “saving the day” during an unforeseen crisis, but in order for a solution to work in a critical situation, it really needs to work during normal, everyday operations. A reliable communication solution will improve the communicative experience for all involved — members of government and the people they serve. Although a proactive and dependable communications strategy is powerful enough to save lives during an emergency, it should be in place beforehand to improve the day-to-day ways people interact with their local and state government.
Today, residents and state partners expect a heightened, modern rapport with their government. Not only does information need to be accurate and consistent, but it also needs to be delivered through a channel most convenient to the individual, which is—of course—a very relative statement. Some prefer to receive their information from a website, while others prefer email, text, or social media. Good communicators know their information must be published to multiple channels—simultaneously—to reach the broadest audience possible.
Preparedness in Practice
Preparedness is key in emergencies, of course, but proactive communication pays dividends even when the stakes aren’t as high. The District of Columbia’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services (FEMS) Department was experiencing a record number of calls to their emergency 911 line, but many of the calls were for non-emergencies. As the population grew, the calls began to overwhelm D.C.’s fire and emergency medical services system and threaten the department’s ability to respond to actual medical emergencies. FEMS worked with a team of digital communications experts to develop a strategic text and email messaging program to educate patients directly about how to proactively manage their health, including when to call 911 and when a doctor’s appointment makes more sense. The educational campaign ultimately diverted about 10% of its total 911 call volume. The education-dominated communications strategy saved the FEMS staff time, which freed them to address more urgent medical emergencies.
The groundwork FEMS laid to improve their communications strategy helped them be ready to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting communications needs. FEMS partnered with the D.C. mayor’s office to disseminate vital public health information quickly to the widest audience possible, which ultimately helped to curtail the spread of the virus.
Originally known as the State Banking Department, the California Department of Financial Protection and Innovation (DFPI) is one of the most powerful state financial regulators in the country. In the past, they’d used tedious manual processes to send weekly, paper-based bulletins to licensees and stakeholders. Later, they upgraded to a monthly, email-based publishing process with frustratingly limited functionality. There was no way to track engagement or open rates and no opportunity to guarantee the bulletins were being viewed by the right people.
Now, DFPI uses modern, digital technology that allows them to track how many people open an email, click a particular link, and which messages are the most effective for reaching a specific audience. This insight enables the staff to make more informed decisions based on actionable data and adjust accordingly.
The early days of COVID-19 required DFPI staff to quickly adapt to rapidly changing safety protocols, alert financial institutions about capacity restrictions inside bank branches, and disseminate information about emerging financial relief programs for renters and landlords, all while working remotely. The pandemic also uncovered the need to communicate with internal staff through text instead of relying on an 800 number for emergency communications. Because they had proactively implemented a seamless communications solution, the DFPI team could intuitively send the necessary notifications to their banking partners as well as their internal staff members with ease.
The Alaska Department of Transportation (DOT) is another great example of how having a reliable communications strategy can be transformational in a time of need. When a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook roadways in Anchorage unexpectedly, the communications team had to work quickly to get travelers out of harm’s way. The team used a combination of social media, email, and text messages to alert tens of thousands of subscribers to the threat; the same strategy they’d used for the past eight years. Meadow Baily, communications director at the Alaska Department of Transportation said, “govDelivery has been reliable in our everyday operations, but also in crisis. Our residents love that they can hear from us via text.” The communications team used a cloud-based solution that enabled a small, geographically dispersed team to work together virtually to share safety messages via email and text around the clock. Updates covered which roads and bridges were either blocked off for inspection, damaged and in need of repairs, or repaired and back in service. The Alaska DOT’s established communications infrastructure and strategy not only saved staff time and energy, it also kept the people of Anchorage safe during a sudden public health safety event. Preparedness enabled them to act swiftly—with ease—and save lives.
These days, updating or redesigning your website is a good start, but it will only take you so far. A multi-channel communications strategy is the only way to truly connect with the people you serve. To achieve your goals as a government communicator, you must engage with residents and state partners everywhere you can. Defining a communication strategy that hits the most relevant audiences, managing the volume of messages required across your organization, and ensuring you have the right approvals and security can be a challenge, but you can achieve it with the right technology.
Go for a proactive and thoughtful communications strategy that includes smart, secure technology that can meet your needs without putting any further strain on limited staff resources. If your agency needs help finding the right solution, we can help. You might even be able to use stimulus funding to boost your tech.
Let’s use the tragedy behind us to inform the triumph ahead.