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  • Success Story
  • Tacoma-Pierce County

How Pandemic Lessons Shifted Digital Community Outreach


Serving a diverse Washington community of nearly one million residents, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s thoughtful strategies helped overcome barriers to COVID-19 vaccination. Using digital tools from Granicus, it was able to create campaigns that inspired action and centered community trust.

“GovDelivery in particular was such an essential connection point during COVID and has remained so since. It’s a vital platform for our overall strategies to use plain language, make sure we're relevant, and reach people where they are.”
Edie Jeffers, Director of Communications and Community Relations


  • 71.3% engagement 
  • 220,410 subscribers 
  • 84% growth in subscribers YoY
  • 458% growth over 2 years 
Must have Granicus Solutions

Building Trust in a Time of Crisis

In the shadow of Mount Rainier, Pierce County is the second-largest in the state of Washington and one of the most diverse. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department communicators place a priority on messages that reflect and speak to its population, which has grown 30% in 20 years.

“There are plenty of drivers of lack of trust in government,” said Edie Jeffers, Director of Communications and Community Relations. “We think about how to make sure we’re not contributing to that.”

Public health information grew increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department needed to quickly provide reliable information to audiences hungry for updates.

For Jeffers, that presented an opportunity to present government as a critical ally and address the issues that create mistrust.

“Before COVID, we were a small team,” Jeffers recalled. “And even before the pandemic, I had this vision that as traditional media was going away, we needed to do more to become basically our own media outlet, to become that reliable source.”

Jeffers’ team faced the daunting task of informing one of Washington’s most diverse counties about COVID vaccinations while still encouraging healthy pandemic habits like wearing masks and distancing. Jeffers said historic distrust of healthcare and vaccines also presented barriers.

In short, the Health Department needed to build trust with many people.

“We didn’t want to scare people,” said Dusty Lane, Digital Media Specialist for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. “We didn’t want to divide people. We wanted to bring people together. So, we specifically chose what our touchstones were going to be as we were working on our campaign messaging. It was very intentional and involved a lot of discussion and a lot of iteration to get to that place.”

Reaching every corner of Pierce County in a rapidly evolving environment meant the Communication team included diverse voices in its planning.

“We need to make sure we’re broadly relatable,” Jeffers said. “People who have control over communication and editing processes have a lot of power. How do we ensure that even though we're entrusted to do that and that's our job, that we're using that privilege of being the arbiter of the voice responsibly?”

Creating Specific Messages for Specific Communities

As their team and needs grew during the pandemic, Jeffers and Lane turned to two Granicus tools to help spread messages. In 2018, they used the govAccess web creation tool to power their website redesign. And weeks before the pandemic arrived in Pierce County, they had subscribed to the govDelivery messaging platform.

“govDelivery in particular was such an essential connection point during COVID and has remained so since,” Jeffers said. “It’s a vital platform for our overall strategies to use plain language, make sure we’re relevant, and reach people where they are.”

Data from govDelivery helped the team gather feedback and strategize on how best to reach different groups in the community. With audience segmentation tools, they adjusted messaging to target audiences as new data became available, new groups were created, and people’s opinions and reasons for holding them changed.

The digital evolution created with this data, Lane said, was reflected immediately in both website and email messaging.

“Our agency also stood up a large community engagement team through the pandemic so we could hear directly where the barriers were, what were the best messages, and the best ways to think about how to reach different groups of people,” he said. “We included lots of people in conversations. It was really part of an agencywide effort to have these conversations with the community and use what we learned to continue the conversation from our end, and make sure that, at the end of the day, our reliable information reached people in a way that was meaningful to them.”

As vaccines became available, the Health Department worked with Pierce County Department of Emergency Management to quickly stand up mass vaccination sites. Community-specific messaging and plain language in email, social media, and the website were critical. The agency worked closely with community organizations to hold invitation-only events for groups suffering most from COVID-19 and created new systems to build public trust and give everyone a fair chance at an appointment.

During that time, govDelivery subscriber capture overlays helped grow blog subscriptions from about 200 people to nearly 50,000 people, as residents signed up to receive the latest public health information. That gave the Health Department a direct messaging pipeline to a large chunk of its population.

As vaccine supply began to outweigh demand, Jeffers said the focus shifted to addressing barriers to vaccination. The agency moved beyond standard engagement and communication strategies.

Using the website, blog, social media, and govDelivery lists, the Health Department launched spaces to talk through issues in a no-pressure zone. It staged them at food banks, parks, and community centers, staffed with people who lived in the area.

Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities felt mistrust toward a medical system that had performed grave injustices in the past on marginalized and vulnerable people. The agency worked closely with groups like the Tahoma Indian Center, the Salishan Association, the Asia Pacific Cultural Center and the Korean Women’s Association to make sure residents had easy access to vaccines and felt welcome when they had questions.

Rural areas were also home to many with low trust in government and healthcare, Jeffers said. The Health Department partnered with local people and groups who helped build trust and answer questions. The group of trusted messengers included faith and business leaders, medical professionals, organizers and influencers who were well known in their communities.

To aid those conversations, the agency created data-driven materials for the website including blogs, FAQs, a video series, presentations, and infographics that partners could use to tackle misinformation and improve trust.

The audience segmentation tools in govDelivery helped customize messaging to audiences.

“The fact that we have customized lists allows us to have very specialized topical groups,” Jeffers said. “That helped our internal staff and community engage with their unique communities both during the pandemic and now on a variety of topics.”

Targeted segmentation opened another avenue as well.

“A big part of our strategy now is to reach people through targeted email lists,” Lane said. “As we can be more dependent on that, we become less dependent on social media, and some of the problems that social media carries with it. It’s changed the way we reach people, the way we think about reaching people, and the kinds of messaging we use.”

Both Jeffers and Lane said partnerships will continue to be central to the Health Department’s engagement strategy.

“It was important during the pandemic, and it’s very important now,” said Lane. “People are more divided. People had so many strong feelings about all the things that happened during the pandemic, and that’s something we continue to address and improve.”


Pandemic Work Builds Base for New Strategies

The Health Department’s digital growth during the pandemic and in the years since opened new paths to engagement and targeted communication. People visited the agency’s COVID-19 vaccine webpage more than 2.2 million times, more than doubling average pageviews for the entire website in previous years.

People also began to rely on the agency’s information. Its vaccine campaign reached people more than 225 million times. Most importantly, residents have received about 1.7 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to date.

A multi-channel approach is now part of planning for large campaigns, he added, combining organic digital outreach with ads on social media, billboards, TV and radio.

While traditional media remains a valuable information sharing partner, the agency’s robust digital toolbox and creative communication campaigns allow it to serve as its own messaging outlet.

“A strong website and digital messaging platform helps us serve as the innovative and reliable source of local public health information,” said Jeffers.

Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s Communication Team received 1st place in the Trust & Transparency category in the 2023 Granicus Digital Government Awards.