Trust, Authenticity, and Creative Approaches Are Key to Effective Crisis Communication

flames in front of a group of fire extinguishersCOVID-19 required county governments, health departments, and other public agencies to step up their communications game. Lessons learned for how to do that effectively for different audiences was the focus of the “Crisis Communications: Ensuring Residents are Ready” at the MACo Summer Conference, held August 18-21 in Ocean City. The session was moderated by Senator Cheryl Kagan, a champion for effective emergency communications at all levels of government.

Chas Eby, Deputy Director of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency kicked off the expert panel with lessons learned at the statewide level. Among his key advice to attendees was to focus on building trust ahead of time with your audience – it is critical to making sure they have faith in the information and recommendations you share during times of crisis. Chas also stressed the importance that information shared during a crisis be actionable. MEMA has staff who can assist local agencies with translation of important safety messaging and Chas encouraged local public information officers to reach out for support.

Brittany Arizmendi serves as the Public Relations Coordinator for Washington County government. She emphasized that the goal of her office during COVID-19 was to be the #1 trusted source of information for their residents about the pandemic. She noted that Washington County has both limited broadband access in much of the county and a large population of elderly residents who are uncomfortable with technology. Brittany shared steps Washington County had taken to help reach these residents, including a phone hotline, door to door contact, and mobile billboards mounted on trucks that had the ability to bring important messages to all corners of the county. She also shared efforts to identify community ambassadors to be the face of the vaccine effort, which has been very successful.

Finally, Adam Abadir, Director Communications for the Baltimore City Health Department shared the unique approach his department had taken to combat misinformation and to improve the reach of their social media communications. Adam recommended that public agencies spend time to really understand their audience and discussed that ways BCHD had implemented changes based on the insights they gained from using Meltwater for analytics. Most importantly, Adam emphasized the need for authentic engagement by public agencies. He encouraged attendees to show personality, use humor, and to be sassy when needed. BCHD successfully used memes and humor during the pandemic to push back at misinformation and gained a larger following in the process. However, he also recommended that communications teams implement a “what if” process to understand how they will react if posts are not successful.

“Take risks to get the word out. Some information is too important to worry so much about tone,” Abadir.

More about MACo’s Summer Conference: