Nine Ways Cities Can Engage Residents In a Time of Crisis

– By Julia Steege-Reimann

What has been working for local government leaders as they engage their communities in this time of crisis?

It has never been more important for municipalities to engage residents. With in-person meetings no longer possible in most states and with much uncertainty, municipalities are innovating to best reach out.

In April 2020, city leaders from across the U.S. described their successes at a Virtual Civic Engagement Roundtable. Key themes discussed included bringing hope to the community, communicating clearly, and sharing resources. While participating in this event hosted by National League of Cities, Polco/National Research Center (NRC) gleaned a treasure-trove of sage ideas, advice, and strategies to share.

1) Thank Community Members and Reinforce City Values

“We use YouTube and our various social media platforms to post videos and updates. The first video started out with the mayor providing reassurance to our diverse residents, updates regarding resources, and enforceable social distancing and stay-at-home regulations. The mayor and city council also created a thank you video to thank healthcare workers, staff, residents, police, and other front-line workers. We received positive responses to that video from our community. We also put out a video that reaffirms our city’s value of tolerance. Its message was that we are one of the most diverse small cities. Tolerance is part of what is ingrained in our community. Let’s be more conscious of our neighbors. Additionally, our social media updates and picture frames reminded residents that we are still working, to stay at home and encouraged residents to join us online for Council meetings during this public health crisis. ” – Laurie-Anne Sayles, Council Vice President, City of Gaithersburg, Maryland 

2) Encourage Smart Decisions

“Our municipal leaders pushed our state government to act on the stay-at-home order. The governor chose to act but we really pushed them.” – Lauren Kuby, Vice Mayor, City of Tempe, Arizona

“We partnered with the Chamber and businesses to start a Commit to Clean campaign. Businesses put stickers in windows to show they were following guidelines.” – Debra Wimpee, Council Member, City of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma

3) Celebrate the Good

“I would encourage local governments to focus on the positive stories that come out of this. Those are things that really inspire people and give them hope.” – Cory Poris Plasch, Vice President of Client Success, Polco.

4) Lead with Facts and Emotions

“Several mayors in my region are champions, nurturers, and are speaking emotively as they lead in this crisis. They communicate facts but also talk about the feel-good things in the community.” Lauren Kuby, Vice Mayor, City of Tempe, Arizona

5) Encourage and Address Questions

Our mayor hosts community-wide conference calls every two days. There are close to 18,000 people on calls who can post questions.” – David Chené, Civic Engagement Manager, City of Albuquerque, New Mexico

6) Consider How to Connect with Different Audiences

“All of our COVID-19 information is in five or six different languages on our website.” – David Chené, Civic Engagement Manager, City of Albuquerque, New Mexico

“Tiktok may resonate with younger people, while Facebook or Nextdoor may have another audience. There are a lot of channels local governments can use to reach different parts of the community.” – Cory Poris Plasch, Vice President of Client Success, Polco

“Make all information smart-phone readable.” – Michelle Kobayashi, Vice President of Innovation, National Research Center

7) Overcommunicate

“We provide residents access to really good, timely, up-to-date information. This is the best way for us to lead at this time: to provide reliable and timely information to our residents because they are getting a lot of different messages from their television screens.” – Laurie-Anne Sayles, Council Vice President, City of Gaithersburg, Maryland 

“The role of local government is to lead and set the tone for the community for how they are supposed to deal with these crises. There is always a balance with communication but a lot of local governments are leaning correctly on more communication rather than less.” – Cory Poris Plasch, Vice President of Client Success, Polco

“Our City does robocalls every day to residents.” – Debra Wimpee, Council member, City of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma

8) Consider Emotional Support Needs

“There is a new initiative [in my City] that has a mental health component and is run by the City. This is an example of how we are creating positive messages and dealing with the emotional responses that come from the pandemic.” – Maraya Keny-Guyer, Associate, Centre for Public Impact

9) Collaborate

“We are working alongside school districts, community associations, and telecom providers to expand families access to laptops and Wi-Fi, and also consider ways we can address digital divides on a long-term basis.”– Christina Collins, Policy Advisor and Council Liaison, City of Dallas, Texas

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