Communicating with the public during a crisis

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic is causing unprecedented disruptions around the world. With information changing by the hour, what role do municipalities...

Saturday March 14, 2020

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic is causing unprecedented disruptions around the world. With information changing by the hour, what role do municipalities have in helping their constituents through these difficult times?

Public health officials, in conjunction with federal and provincial governments, will be actively involved in managing the local health care response, and providing recommendations on program and service impacts. But what should municipalities be doing to share information with the public as it comes in?

Municipalities are required to have an emergency management program or plan under each Province’s emergency management legislation. This plan outlines actions to be taken during a pandemic. As with any emergency, staff must adapt and adjust as new information becomes available.

Here are some tips to help municipal staff support their residents in this time of crisis:

Communicate early

The absence of information is what makes people anxious. Get ahead of the situation by letting residents know you have a plan and are taking action. Even if you don’t have a lot to say, letting residents know you’re on it will give them confidence that their local government is working to keep them safe.

Communicate often

Circumstances are changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up. Set a timeframe for how often you’ll provide updates. Those updates may be brief and could be as simple as “No changes from the last update, staff continue to monitor the situation and will report again at XX”. But if you set the expectation of how frequently you’ll provide updates, you’ll likely buy staff time to work on the activities they need to focus on instead of responding to basic inquiries. Don’t forget to keep your own staff up-to-date so they can help spread the word.

Connect with others

The impact of this type of crisis affects many public and private sector services. Connect with other service providers in the community, such as hospitals and health care providers, educational institutions and transportation services to keep the lines of communication open and reduce confusion among the public as a result of conflicting information.

Evaluate current communications activities and upcoming events

With the amount of information circulating and the rate at which things are changing, one of the biggest challenges is knowing what information is accurate and what is out of date. Take a look at your regular communications channels to evaluate which messages remain relevant and which ones should be momentarily paused. Do you have event pages on Facebook or advertising campaigns that may be impacted? Consider pulling or pausing them until circumstances stabilize.

Consolidate information in a central location

Create a webpage that is easy to find where all information related to your COVID-19 response will be posted. This includes FAQs, cancellations, service updates, links to resources, public health news, etc. You do not need to duplicate information from other organizations about services outside your mandate, but residents will appreciate being able to reference a single webpage to find links to other reputable sources. Many municipal websites have functionalities that allow you to create a friendly URL and even subscribe to pages so the public can easily access the information and stay up-to-date as new information becomes available.

Keep your ear to the ground

Assign someone to monitor news sources and social media to ensure they are aware of new information being circulated, and maybe more importantly, the misinformation that’s out there. This information should be relayed to your emergency management committee to decide if action is needed to address emerging concerns or correct inaccurate information. 

Be the voice of calm

Even in the height of a crisis, municipalities can help keep residents calm by becoming a trusted source of reliable, accurate information. Provide proactive, regular communications and ensure the messages you’re putting out use simple language, convey a sense of authority and don’t use words that cause alarm, even when sharing important or urgent messaging.

At this point, no one knows what the next day (or the day after that) will bring. Be prepared to adapt and adjust on the fly, make notes as you go and perform a comprehensive debrief once the situation allows so that your team can be better prepared to face the next crisis.

Provincial and federal response

See more information about the various Canadian provincial, territorial and federal response plans to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government of Canada

Alberta

British Columbia

Manitoba

Quebec

Nova Scotia

New Brunswick

Newfoundland and Labrador

Northwest Territories

Nunavut

Ontario

PEI

Saskatchewan

Yukon

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