-Panel Discussion Video with Matt Fulton-
“With forced change came a lot of opportunity,” said West Hollywood, California Management Specialist Paolo Kespradit. Kespradit was one of three local government leaders on a panel who said that COVID-19 forced them to quickly and creatively pivot their engagement strategies to be able to connect with even more residents than ever before.
In this video, Polco’s Matt Fulton speaks with local government leaders Kespradit, along with Emily Kilroy and Ashley Traynum-Carson about how the pandemic motivated them to change their engagement strategies to better engage residents in today’s socially-distanced world.
With the pandemic, all three local government leaders have had to quickly adapt the ways they reach out to residents.
“We would have made all these changes eventually,” said Traynum-Carson, Communications and Public Engagement Specialist for the City of Asheville, North Carolina. “But with COVID, we just had to go for it quickly. It’s really helped us to engage our community.”
With COVID-19, Asheville made it easier for residents to send public input via text messages and phone calls. As one example, Asheville has a controversial Confederate monument. On the monument, there is a banner that asks people to text a public comment about the monument. This ability to communicate with the government via texting and phone calls has significantly increased engagement in Asheville.
For Albemarle County, Virginia, the pandemic forced the County to focus on online engagement only.
“When you are trying to run a hybrid system of some in-person and some online engagement, you’re not going to do both great,” said Kilroy, Director of Communications and Public Engagement for the County. “A lot more people are engaging now because they are getting a higher quality experience since we can focus on online only right now.”
West Hollywood, California had been the epicenter of the AIDs epidemic in the past, so they were not strangers to communicating through crises. However, technology now is much different than in the past.
At the beginning of the pandemic, they began to post summaries of daily happenings on social media and weekly webinar series for small businesses.
With online-focused engagement, West Hollywood is seeing up to quadruple times the engagement on youtube than before the pandemic.
Sometimes, pivoting can also mean pausing projects that are no longer relevant in the midst of crisis.
“We paused our work on our 30 year strategic plan. Right now it's hard to imagine the future when people are worried about paying rent tomorrow,” said Kespradit.
One thing the leaders found is that a crisis such as the pandemic requires governments to get real with residents.
“At the start of the pandemic, our communication followed what a lot of local governments do. Very bureaucratic and neutral,” said Kilroy. “We realized soon that we needed to drop that tone immediately and get real. We moved to a more empathetic ‘We’re all in this together’ tone.”
Albemarle County is seeing that shift in tone pay off in terms of higher levels of web traffic, email opens, likes, and other types of online interaction.
Though the leaders have increased resident communication using their new engagement strategies, they are very mindful of how to reach the residents who are still missing.
“Even though 40% of our residents are under the age of 40, there are other residents who are aging in place and not going online as much,” said Kespradit. “For them, we sent a city-wide mailer with information and contacts for social services programming.”
“An engagement strategy needs to cover the needs of those who are really engaged, as well as recognize those who are not as engaged actively on their own but need to be,” said Kilroy. “Who is going to be impacted but doesn’t realize it or who doesn’t have the time to get involved? How do we reach them?”
“Engagement on the front end is really important so we are making policies that will not disengage people and will have the impact that we intended,” said Traynum-Carson.
Learn more through Polco’s website about other ideas for engaging residents. Polco’s online community engagement polling platform provides the information tools local governments and other public sector leaders need.