Washington state, an early casualty in the war on the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), exposed the challenges government faces when it comes to communicating during a crisis. In Snohomish County, health officials knew the public would need information and answers to questions, so they turned to a nonprofit they had used once before to provide a 24-hour emergency hotline service. But public interest surged after the state’s first death from the coronavirus, overwhelming the four call center workers. Even with additional staff, call wait times exceeded 30 minutes.

Washington is far from alone among governments that have struggled in one way or another with communications. In Massachusetts, the state’s 211 hotline was strained from the high call volume as the pandemic took hold there. Other states and localities have also seen their hotlines sputter from spikes in calls for information.

Clearly, people are anxious and want answers to their many questions. With the country now leading the world in confirmed cases, America’s need for credible, correct and rapid access to information has never been more critical, say experts. It’s up to public officials, from governors and mayors to public health directors and public safety executives, to make that happen.

But that hasn’t been the case overall, especially when it comes to unified messaging between the federal and state governments, according to Michael Fraser, chief executive officer for ASTHO (Association of State and Territorial Health Officials). “Part of the dynamic in any crisis will be what is a credible source of information, and who is saying what and is everybody on the same message,” he says.

Early in the outbreak the lack of consistency in communications between the different levels of government became apparent as the Trump administration minimized the risk of the coronavirus while states — as well as other countries around the world — expressed much greater concern about the pandemic. A second problem was the White House message that testing for the coronavirus was available to anyone who wanted it, when in fact the test kits were in limited supply.

Inconsistency in communications creates uncertainty, says Fraser, “and when there’s uncertainty, communicating risk becomes difficult for states.”

Centralized Communications Trend

Another communications challenge is the over-abundance of information people are receiving, whether it’s from official sources, the media or from social media. Add the fact that rumors continue to swirl only muddies the waters. “Government has to try and break through that noise,” says Chris Hsiung, deputy police chief for Mountain View, Calif.

The Silicon Valley city had been enjoying the fruits of its economic success, but all that came to a halt with the arrival of the coronavirus. Exacerbating the problem was that City Manager Kimbra McCarthy had just started her position on March 2, leaving little time for the traditional honeymoon period of getting settled or to set her agenda. Instead, one of her first moves was to create a crisis communications team, which consists of her office, human resources, fire and the police, with Hsiung as team leader.

Joint information centers or teams are part of the new trend in crisis communications, according to ASTHO’s Fraser. Rather than have separate public information officers reaching out to the public as representatives of their individual agencies, they work from one centralized place and create a consistent message. “Forming a joint center is unusual, but it indicates a large-scale emergency is happening that requires all those folks pulling in the same direction,” he says.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when it comes to communications during a health crisis, government needs to be credible, correct and timely. Mountain View’s approach called for quickly assessing what the public was talking about and figuring out how to communicate with them in a way that would be effective. “The takeaway is not to put more information out to the public; it’s about providing context that is relevant to them,” says Hsiung.

Another trend that has impacted how governments communicate during a crisis is the shift away from having a press release “mindset” when it comes to communicating. With fewer people getting their news from newspapers and instead getting a steady stream of news and information from their smartphones, government has to be more adaptive when it comes to releasing information, according to Hsiung.

Mountain View distributes a regular briefing via email that has been optimized for mobile devices. The information in it and sent out via social media is written in a way that conveys emotional intelligence, according to Hsiung. “You don’t want to sound flat or boring, nor do you want to fight emotion with logic,” he says. “It’s important that government projects itself as human, not just as a collection of civil servants.”

Communicating Digitally

While hotlines have struggled to cope with the surge in calls for answers to questions about COVID-19, they have served a key purpose: diverting some of the stress from the nation’s overloaded 911 emergency call system. Many public health systems have partnered with nonprofits, such as the United Way, to help with manning and running call centers.

Advances in technology have also helped spread the use of mass communications, whether it’s sending out recorded messages to phones or using text messaging apps to get out critical information. Governments can subscribe to these critical event management software platforms and, depending on the complexity of their needs, quickly send out information in a timely manner, as well as allow the public to send in questions and queries for help.

Everbridge, an event management provider, has a cloud-based service, which means it doesn’t require any hardware to operate. “We can get a city or town set up and running in a very short period of time,” says Brian Toolan, director of government strategy at Everbridge.

Because it’s digital and easy to use, there can be a tendency to overuse the messaging capabilities of these platforms. Toolan cautions governments to watch out for sending too many messages, leading to the public to tune them out.

“It’s about how do you get the right message out, at the right time and to the right audience,” he says. “The message should be short, quick and actionable, explaining what you are trying to get them to do (stay at home, practice social distancing and so on). Then you send out a follow-up, later on. You don’t want to use this kind of messaging system like Twitter.”

Technology for mass communications during a crisis got its start as weather disasters became more frequent and deadly, creating the need for more responsive, flexible solutions to mass messaging during an emergency. OnSolve, another critical event software tool provider, is based in Florida where it began serving counties and now the entire state during the hurricane season. Today, its CodeRED app and platform operates in 10,000 communities across the country, according to Troy Harper, general manager for state and local government at OnSolve.

As a large purveyor of mass communication software, OnSolve has found there are regional differences in how states and localities use its service, which is also in the cloud for quick setups, says Harper. “California doesn’t use this sort of mass alerting technology, whereas in the east, especially in Massachusetts, it’s very popular,” he adds.

Governments have also found the alerting systems are effective internally, providing workers with useful information as they adjust to working remotely during the pandemic. But like every other communications strategy, Harper emphasizes the need to strike a balance when it comes to messaging. “It needs to be concise, precise and on time,” he says, adding “once a government starts to use it, they realize it’s not just a fire extinguisher. Its value goes beyond that.”