Note: This is the second guest post by Whitney Hoffman. She’s sharing some thoughts about being ready for and recovering from disasters. -Becky
Guest Post by Whitney Hoffman, Township Supervisor in Kennett Township PA
Small towns across the Country are facing a Communications Crisis.
We’re seeing contracting media markets, where hometown newspapers fold or go digital. TV and radio stations also face intense competition for advertising dollars, and as a result, there are fewer and fewer media outlets that have the time or the interest to report on what’s happening on Main Street or at the local planning commission meeting.
Not only that, busy people are having their attention divided among almost every platform imaginable, and we’re even having people pay less attention to traditional notifications, like mail.
What kind of problems does this communications crisis cause?
Here in Chester County, PA, we sit outside Philadelphia and just north of the Delaware border. The Philadelphia media market dominates, so much so that Delaware doesn’t even have its own TV station- just an hour on the PBS station, and a few local radio stations. The Delaware paper, the News Journal, used to cover a lot of the news in the local area, but since it was purchased by Gannett, it has become much smaller, thinner, and has substantially fewer resources to report the news than in years past.
When we enacted an emergency services tax increase in our Township last year, we had all the public meetings and the budget meetings covered by reporters. It was reported prominently in the local county newspaper. We sent out email notices of the meetings to everyone who has opted into our email notification list, and we have our agendas posted online. We put notices on our Facebook page. We also record and stream all of our Board of Supervisor meetings on Youtube. We even sent a postcard out to every household, letting them know about the tax increase. Yet it was only when the tax bill came in the mail that people started calling and showing up at public meetings, insisting this was the first they ever heard of it.
We had people taking to a new app called NextDoorNow, complaining about the tax increase and wondering why we didn’t post anything there. Some people wanted to know by text message. Others though a letter versus a postcard would have been better. What we took away from the experience was that there was not just one or two channels of communication now, but many. And for the sake of our staff and our sanity, we needed to make sure we had “official” channels of communication established, where people could get the facts rather than rumors started on numerous online forums.
Communications In a Crisis
When the recent severe storms hit this year, I began to think about how lucky we are to have a variety of communications channels that work, even if none of them seem to reach everybody effectively. For towns without a Facebook page, community group, email list, or other communication channel, how are displaced people supposed to find out if it’s safe to return home? If the power is restored? What steps to take to secure property or even steps to take if you have to abandon it for a period of time? What is required to show if you need insurance or FEMA support, if all your records and maybe even those of others have been destroyed? Can people rely on the Town’s official webpage for information, or are there other communication channels that will get the word out more effectively?
Bringing Together a Diaspora
When a community is spread out over a large area due to a storm, communications get more difficult. The rumor mill will start to churn immediately, especially if reliable information from authorities is unavailable.
While I could go on at length about how to choose official communications channel(s) for your community, the important point to take away from our experience with the tax increase is that you need to establish official communication channels so people know where to go for reliable information. That will likely be a combination of channels, ranging from email, Facebook groups, Facebook pages, Twitter or other selected channels. You should have those channels and links displayed prominently on your website and social media profiles. And you should remind the public regularly that they can sign up for emails from local government- and then treat these assets like gold. Don’t use them for advertising, but for important community wide communication. That way, people will gradually learn where they can to go for real, reliable information, even if they have moved away from the area entirely.
That will pay off in spades if there ever is a huge crisis like that facing so many communities devastated by this year’s storms.
Do What Works- even if it’s not “Right”
I went to a meeting of a local business group, and i asked them how they found out what was happening, and how we could communicate better. Several people said they just followed the posts on my personal Facebook page, as I tend to post updates during storms or when we get word of unexpected road closures, etc. I was both shocked and gratified at the same time. Without my realizing it, people were following and sharing my Facebook posts about the community, and it had become a de facto portal besides our regular Facebook page for communication. Now while that means I have to be a bit careful because more people than I realize are “watching” what I post on Facebook, it also means that they are viewing me as a reliable source for information when they need it most. It’s not the official public communication channel I want to create, but it is one that works.
If you do have a crisis in your community, getting in touch with the local influencers- heads of organizations, groups and the like- and asking them to share important messages could be incredibly important during a crisis or emergency. Putting together a list of these people and updating their contact information yearly would be a great idea, in case it is ever needed. Many towns already have an emergency preparedness plan, and a list of local organization heads and influencers might be a good addition to this plan.
Communications is Critical
It’s really easy to make assumptions that “everyone” knows something, or that you’ve done all you can to let them know. We found out that people listen to different “channels” depending on many factors- and you can’t count on only one channel to make sure your message is heard.
The truth of it is that there are very few central communication channels any more, and you need to make sure you build a variety of reliable channels so that they’re available when you really need them. Build them now, and you’ll be in a much better position to weather any storm, whether its economic or designed by Mother Nature.
More about Whitney
I was sworn in as a Kennett Township Supervisor in January 2016, and now serve as Vice Chair of the Board as of January 3, 2017. I am the first elected female Supervisor in the history of the Township.
I am currently working as a social media manager for Mingl Marketing and its sister company, Comfort Media Group in Philadelphia, and I also consult as a digital marketing strategist for Epic Marketing in Delaware on a project by project basis.
My consulting business, Hoffman Digital Media, specializes in digital media strategy, content marketing, and management for the web. I work with businesses and organizations to help them hone and develop a social media and 360 degree marketing strategy, ensuring that they can target potential customers online as well as measure the return on investment of marketing dollars. I speak regularly to businesses and community organizations on social media, content strategy, business strategy, technology and digital citizenship issues to groups of all sizes.
Read Whitney’s first post, Planning lessons every small town can learn from disaster