In a crisis, communicating with citizens is one of the hardest – and most important – things government must do. Maintaining accurate and transparent communication with residents is a vital part of any disaster response and recovery.

This has been even more true during the coronavirus pandemic. The unprecedented scale and prolonged nature of the crisis – along with a daily swirl of mixed messages from government leaders and misinformation from multiple sources – have made communication especially critical.

“Communicate; make a decision; communicate,” says Ohio State CIO Ervan Rodgers II, quoting one of his favorite pieces of advice about crisis response. “Making sure that you are communicating and you’re making timely decisions is going to be critical in any pandemic or any type of emergency.”

Rodgers spoke on a recent webinar as part of a series of conversations for the Crisis Response Initiative, a joint program between Governing and Government Technology to help equip state and local leaders with tactics and resources to respond to crises. “It’s better to make a call than not to make call,” he said. “You can always go back and make some adjustments.”

Rodgers said it is important for governments to be flexible and adaptable in getting their message out. Early in the pandemic, for example, Rodgers’ team had to gain expertise to produce Gov. Mike DeWine’s daily briefings to the public. “From an IT standpoint, that’s not necessarily a ‘producer’ kind of element you would typically perform,” he said. “We had to get really innovative, because the first couple of press conferences, the governor crashed the internet.”

Ohio’s system was set up for a few hundred people to watch; events like the governor’s State of the State address might garner 500 people tuning in online. But as the coronavirus outbreak began, said Rodgers, “We went from 500 to almost a quarter of a million connections at one time. That’s not something you can just handle with traditional IT.”

The state quickly moved to a streaming service using one of its existing cloud providers.

“I never would have thought I would have the opportunity to put ‘TV producer’ on my resume,” Rodgers said. “But I can say we perfected it pretty quickly and became kind of a model for other states to mimic, to get the much-needed information out to the masses.”

Orange County, Fla., CIO Rafael Mena, who joined Rodgers on the recent webinar, said his county has one advantage in terms of crisis communication: “We spend six months of the year in hurricane season. So, over the years, we have taken the opportunity to implement certain technologies to make sure our citizens are well-informed of what’s happening during an emergency.”

The county, he noted, has developed smart apps and texting tools for getting information pushed out to citizens. But the “key aspect of communication” in the pandemic, he said, has been tight, ongoing coordination among different parts of local government. For example, Mayor Jerry Demings convened an Executive Policy Group to coordinate the county’s virus response efforts. The committee, which meets every day for an hour, includes the health department, the medical director, local health care providers, public safety leaders and others.

“You have all the key players [providing] feedback, providing information related to the pandemic. And then that information is sent to our citizens, in real-time, via all the different means that we have,” said Mena.

Interestingly, he noted, despite the rising popularity of social media, text messaging and other new platforms, the most effective forms of communication tend to be old-school.

“We have a large communication team that is focusing on responding in real time on all these events. But in reality, I think the one that continues to be the most popular is TV and radio.”

Learn more about how governments are meeting the challenges of the pandemic at governing.com/crisisresponse.

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