The threat of loss of life and economic damage that could result from the COVID-19 pandemic is staggering. With the seriousness of these extraordinary circumstances and millions of Americans working remotely and following social distancing mandates, it feels like COVID-19 is the only thing there is to read about, think about, or talk about. With no live professional or college sports, all live entertainment venues closed, and 24-hour media outlets that are covering the virus from every possible angle, many Americans are looking for a comforting and uplifting distraction, and they are turning to social media.
For local governments, however, that are responsible for keeping their citizens safe and informed while we work as a nation to flatten the curve, what is the optimal strategy for social media content? Should they post frequent updates solely about COVID-19 and its local impact, or do citizens also need occasional, uplifting images of social normalcy that have nothing to do with the virus and local response? What is the necessary balance to ensure citizens don’t tune out local updates on social channels in favor of unrelated content from friends, family, and brands, but also don’t lose hope that their community and their lives will return to normal?
The key is to keep social content informative, relevant, and open as a dialog. Here’s how.
Communicate News, Updates, and Instructions Early and Often
Until we see a reduction in cases of COVID-19 or have a known treatment or vaccine, communication at the local level is king. Continue to use social media frequently to share all relevant new information, closures, and health office recommendations, but also mix in updates and news about routine municipal operations. By seeing a link to watch a live stream of your town council meeting, for example, citizens will see that your administration is still functioning and may just consider becoming a regular virtual meeting viewer.
Use a Calm but Confident Tone
Your citizens need to appreciate the gravity of the current health risk, and need to take recommendations seriously to stay indoors, however, now is not the time to use language or any tone that may elevate levels of panic or distrust. Avoid sending messages in all capital letters or with exclamation points, which can feel like shouting. Avoid attempting to impress the seriousness of the health risk by raising fears about the death toll. Your citizens are already aware that we are losing loved ones to the virus. Instead, reassure citizens that their government leaders care about their safety and are doing everything they can to help flatten the curve. Reassure citizens that we will all get through this together. Click here for more on communicating about COVID-19 without creating panic.
Ramp Up Social Listening
It is crucial for local governments not just to use social media to push information out at this time, but to pull it in. Your citizens are sharing information, anecdotes, media stories, and asking questions in the social sphere. By paying attention to this dialog, you can learn critical information about citizen sentiments, fears, and concerns. You can also correct misunderstandings and rumors that are circulating in your digital community.
Social media listening software like Sprinklr, Sprout Social, CrowdTangle, and Brandwatch allows you to set up keyword terms for mentions of COVID-19 or coronavirus in connection with your community. You can also accomplish some levels of social listening without any additional software investment by using native tools within Facebook, Twitter, and Nextdoor.
You can also follow relevant hashtags, local business leaders, local media outlets and their reporters, and local influencers on social to see what they are sharing, posting, and saying. Then, take part in the conversation. If you are finding that citizens are posting fears about food shortages, park closings, or hospital capacity shortages, respond with factual updates and reassurance. Citizens will value knowing that their local leaders are listening and responding.
Use Social Media as a Source of Dialog
With your City Hall’s doors closed, citizens cannot stop in or pick up the phone to ask questions; however, they can message their elected officials or local leaders on social media. Such efforts will only be seen as favorable if citizens receive prompt responses to their inquiries. Not only are such responses of value to the citizen who asked the question, but they will be seen favorably by both parties’ followers who witness the open exchange.
To accomplish this level of response, your public information office may need assistance from team members who do not typically take part in social media responses. Ensure everyone who has access to your municipality’s official accounts receives consistent training on response protocols, has access to the latest information and local resources, and know your administration’s key message points.
You may also want to consider holding virtual question and answer sessions with your elected officials. Promote on social media that your mayor or county officials will be broadcasting live on Facebook on a specific day and time. Allow citizens to chat questions for your elected leaders to answer live. Be prepared to have a member of your communications team standing by to moderate the chat, as you may have some citizens who want to use the venue as an opportunity to vent.
Remind Citizens of Your Community’s Social Media Guidelines
An unintended byproduct of fear can be rumor and speculation. Local governments must make every effort to keep misunderstandings and incorrect information from being shared as posts on their official social media profiles. Take this time to remind followers of your community’s social media guidelines. Moderate your pages closely and take steps to delete, hide, correct, or warn users who are purposefully posting inciteful language or information. For best practices on creating social media policies for your public safety staff, click here.
Review and Adjust Prescheduled Posts
You do not need to delete all your prescheduled posts but review them all with a keen eye to ensure the tone and messaging is appropriate. For example, you may have prescheduled messages wishing your citizens a Happy Easter. Such sentiments are still important and relevant, but perhaps change the post from wishing everyone a fun and happy holiday, to a safe and healthy one.
Ensure you do remove any prescheduled posts about events that your administration has cancelled so as not to confuse citizens or disappoint them by thinking some social distancing restrictions have been lifted.
Plan for a Return to Normalcy
It may feel like all your community’s communications are focused around COVID-19 but know that you can slowly begin to mix in regular, non-emergency content in the months to come. As social distancing restrictions lift, and businesses reopen, you can start to share an appropriate amount of non-COVID-19 related posts and messages, ensuring that your tone is still informational, educational, and reassuring.
For the next several weeks—possibly months—your citizens will want trusted news, information, and updates from their local leaders. They can and will seek out amusing videos, images, and updates from other sources. When it comes to messaging from their local leaders, share early and often. Maintain an open dialog. Listen to trends. Keep content confident but calm, and most importantly, do everything you can to reassure your citizens that together, as small communities within a great nation, we will beat COVID-19.
For more information on managing social media during a disaster, click here to download our eBook.