Staying Focused During a Pandemic By Sara Spaulding, APR, PRSA Fellow

    As a Public Information Officer (PIO) and Communications Director, I’ve responded to a wide variety of emergencies and crises in my career, including injured Columbine students who were transported to Swedish Medical Center, preparation for Y2K, and statewide wildfires and blizzards. Additionally, my crisis communications experience includes having served as the lead PIO for the Gold King Mine disaster in La Plata County, and now I’ll add the current COVID-19 pandemic to that list.

    While the response to every disaster takes planning, flexibility and resiliency, as a communications professional, nothing could have prepared me for the long term impacts of a global pandemic. Working as the PIO for the City of Wheat Ridge as well as the Wheat Ridge Police Department has required the ability to shift priorities and tailor messages on the fly, keeping in mind sometimes conflicting points of view, and pivoting that focus, often multiple times a day. Our Emergency Response Team including the City Emergency Manager, the City Manager, the Police Chief, department directors and managers of key departments like HR and IT, was organized early in the crisis and drives the daily agenda used to frame key messages for each day. Meetings provide updates on the virus as well as collaborated decisions regarding modified city business, processes and procedures, and future planning. The Governor and the county Public Health department issue orders on a regular basis, and sometimes have required a change to local plans at a moment’s notice.  On one occasion, earlier orders were reversed resulting in the need for immediate planning and a local response by the City Emergency Response Team.

    Following the morning emergency team meeting, the social media coordinator and I communicate through a conference call or email to strategize message priorities for each communications platform. In addition to updates on moving or creating City processes online, we have created new webpages to help organize the information being shared at the county, state and federal level so our community members could more easily find what they needed. We also collaborated with local business organizations to create resources and ways to support small businesses, and pushed City Council meetings into a virtual format with training videos to increase the public’s confidence for participating in a video and call-in format.

    During the state of emergency that is now entering its fifth week, there are two things on which I’ve remained focused throughout our response; 1) Providing counsel to senior leadership; and 2) Managing the energy and stamina of a two person team for the long term.  I believe communications professionals have a responsibility to serve as the voice of the public that the organization has a mission to serve. To me, that means discussing the pros as well as the cons of how a message may be received and any legal ramifications, while being fully transparent about the process undertaken to reach a difficult decision. As a mighty team of two, we have been working full throttle every day since the beginning of the pandemic. In addition to pushing messages out, we are monitoring social media for community concerns that rise to the top of the list, watching for misunderstandings of key messages, and interacting with residents who might simply be seeking a compassionate ear. In order to continue to do our jobs well, we must remember to take time for ourselves to refresh and recharge. Stepping away from the keyboard or the phone when things are moving at such a rapid pace may seem daunting, even impossible, but if we allow ourselves to wear down we cannot continue to be effective in the roles our organizations are relying on us to perform on their behalf.

    We are all being impacted in different ways by this global crisis. However, in our roles as communications professionals, it’s up to us to support and guide those who may be angry or frightened. Sometimes we will need to endure challenging interactions with our stakeholders in order to reassure them that there are committed, talented professionals leading the organization through this emergency while at the same time providing information critical to staying healthy and safe. As we continue to respond and react, plan and create, we need to hold each other up, support each other, and celebrate the good news we can find to share, because in so many ways we hold the key to the success of our organizations as we navigate the long road ahead.

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