Back to the Jan-Feb 2021 issue

Flexibility Is Key to Communicating Through COVID-19

By Helen LaFave

Communicating during the pandemic has required quick pivots, flexibility, and innovation as cities have worked to quickly and clearly share information about the status of facilities, services, and programs.

In Plymouth, we have relied on a different mix of communications tools than usual during the pandemic. We also considered how to do things differently to support local businesses and reassure the community during a frightening and unfamiliar situation.

Using the right tools

This spring, we opted to forgo publishing two issues of the city newsletter. The fluidity of the situation left no time for printing and mailing. Instead, digital media ruled. The website, social media, email notifications, and online videos offered the timeliness that the situation demanded.

A volunteer serves coffee to a veteran during Plymouth’s drive-thru veterans breakfast.
A volunteer serves coffee to a veteran during Plymouth’s drive-thru veterans breakfast, which replaced the annual veterans luncheon in 2020. PHOTO COURTESY CITY OF PLYMOUTH

The website has been the hub of all communications. Curating pandemic-related content on a single web page gave residents one website address to remember. From the start, Plymouth staff documented COVID-19-related changes to content on other areas of the website. That comprehensive list will allow staff to efficiently update pages post-pandemic.

Social media and email notifications have played important roles in COVID-19 communications. Both drove traffic to the website, where complete information was available. Pandemic-related social media posts and emails were branded with the same graphic template to help scrolling residents easily spot updates.

During Gov. Walz’s stay-at-home order, video was key — and productions were utilitarian. We worked with the local cable organization, CCX Media, to produce Zoom interviews with staff content experts and our mayor that could be posted online minutes after they were recorded. Interviews offered updates and reassurance that core city services were continuing uninterrupted.

We also placed a priority on communicating with city staff, many of whom were working remotely for the first time. City Manager Dave Callister regularly emailed updates that reassured and helped ease uncertainty.

Adapting to meet the moment

An unprecedented situation called for making thoughtful COVID-19 exceptions to policies and looking for innovative ways to engage residents. Here’s a sampling of Plymouth’s outreach:

Restaurant listing. During the heart of Minnesota’s stay-at-home order, and again when restaurants were closed for indoor dining in November, our Communications and Economic Development staff partnered to publish an online list of Plymouth restaurants open for takeout and delivery.

This was something our website policy normally wouldn’t allow, but without a convention and visitors bureau, the city opted to break a rule to support local businesses during a season of uncertainty. Likewise, social media posts emphasized dining and shopping locally to support Plymouth businesses.

Fire station tour. The Plymouth Fire Department was unable to provide its popular in-person station tours and educational visits. The city teamed up with CCX Media to produce a virtual tour and fire prevention video. Firefighters also conduct live tours via Zoom.

Drive-thru veterans breakfast. Because Plymouth was unable to host its annual veterans luncheon, Communications staff worked with Recreation employees to publicize a multi-faceted veterans event.

Before the event, the city asked residents to submit notes of thanks to veterans. More than 1,300 letters were given to veterans at the drive-thru, along with a commemorative Veterans Day medal, breakfast sandwich, and other goodies. Police and Fire staff delivered the same to veterans at senior facilities.

Mayor’s messages. During the pandemic, the Communications team enlisted Mayor Jeff Wosje to share messages that projected calm, and emphasized the strength and resiliency of the community.

Police community engagement. Communications staff worked with the Plymouth, Minnetonka, and New Hope Police departments to invite community members to a virtual event, “The Power of a Question: Enriching Community Conversations,” which explored the dynamics of police interactions from the perspectives of an officer, a young Black man stopped by police, and the young man’s mother. The event set the stage for future conversations.

Easing back to ‘normal’

When the time was right, we were not afraid to share good news. Posts and newsletter stories showing people volunteering, supporting businesses, and participating in pandemic- modified activities have proven popular and helped create some normalcy during a time that continues to be anything but normal.

Helen LaFave is communications manager with the City of Plymouth.