By Andrea Lebron - January 7, 2021
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many private sector organizations have digitalized public-facing operations to maintain a continuity of service while addressing the challenges of stay-at-home orders, social distancing requirements, and staff shortages. However, while many people have become accustomed to working from home, ordering groceries online, celebrating birthdays via Zoom, and attending yoga classes remotely, public interaction with local government agencies has not been so straightforward.
Many government offices have closed during stay-at-home orders or have had to restrict public access due to social distancing requirements; and although public employees working from home are better equipped to communicate internally than they were during the first wave of the pandemic, the same cannot be said for communicating externally.
Certainly, there have been efforts made by government agencies to connect with the public. Many departments have increased their use of social media, engaged bloggers to share community news, or expanded online services despite being constrained by budget restrictions, legacy systems, and staff shortages. In fact, what some local governments have achieved has been quite remarkable.
Nonetheless, it is sometimes the case these communication strategies fail to compensate for a lack of face-to-face interaction nor meet the requirements of availability, responsiveness, and accountability the public expects from local government agencies. There are multiple reasons for these shortcomings – and a simple solution.
Strategies that rely on Internet-based communication channels (i.e., social media, blogs, and online services) exclude citizens without Internet connectivity. These citizens are typically those most likely to be in most need of public services – i.e., the elderly, the less educated, and those on lower incomes. For example, only half of adults with incomes of $30,000 or less have home broadband.
Citizens that do have Internet-connectivity don't always find public agency social media posts available (around one-in-six according to this research), while third-party bloggers are neither responsive nor accountable for what they publish. Furthermore, according to one survey, 87% of individuals found it difficult to determine between fake news and news from credible online sources.
The spread of misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic is so severe that it is now considered to be an “infodemic”. A recent survey revealed 97% of government officials believe communicating timely and accurate information helps prevent the spread of COVID-19 misinformation, yet only 33% were proactively reaching out to the public – and then by Internet-based communication channels.
This comes at a time when more people are trying to find credible sources of information, when local governments have an opportunity to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic, and when communities are searching for leaders in the battle against pandemic fatigue – especially as the most credible forecasts for a “return to normality” suggest another year of the same.
It´s not the case public agencies are doing a bad job at connecting with communities. It's just that current communication strategies have too many gaps and are battling against too much noise and an infodemic of misinformation to be fully effective. So, how can local governments better connect with communities in order to compensate for a lack of face-to-face interaction and meet the requirements of availability, responsiveness, and accountability?
The answer is not to focus too much on digital communication, but rather contactless communication – a mode of communication that doesn't require Internet-connectivity, that can be heard through the noise, and that can be a credible vaccine for the infodemic of misinformation. What magical solution is this? Actually, it is nothing more than good old SMS messaging.
Despite SMS messaging being an older technology, it has multiple benefits for connecting with communities. 96% of the U.S. adult population owns a cellphone – increasing audience reach – SMS messages are delivered to cellphones (rather than cellphone owners having to search the Internet for information), and SMS open rates are claimed to be as high as 98%.
In the context of compensating for a lack of face-to-face interaction or meeting the requirements of availability, responsiveness, and accountability, many people prefer the familiarity of text messaging to face-to-face interaction, SMS messaging is always available, SMS messaging supports two-way communication, and SMS messages are always copied on carriers' servers.
See how SMS Messaging Works
While it is impractical to send each member of the community an individual SMS message - or send thousands of group SMS messages to groups within the community – SMS messaging platforms exist that can send a single message to tens of thousands of recipients simultaneously, or which can segment the population database into groups according to their location.
Being able to segment population databases into groups by location gives public health agencies the opportunity to send alerts, advice, and information to only those people for whom it is relevant. The platforms also have the capabilities to schedule messages in advance (for reminder messages), create templates to use in neighboring jurisdictions, and can auto-translate messages into other languages in order to provide advice to communities whose first language is not English.
SMS messaging platforms can also be used to support contact tracing operations, exposure notification services, and vulnerable needs registries. The platforms are inexpensive to use, quick to deploy, and require no special skills to operate. Effectively, SMS messaging platforms are the future of contactless communications for local governments; and, if you would like to know more about how they can be used to better connect with communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, do not hesitate to download and read our Coronavirus Response Solution for state and local governments.
Andrea is Rave's Director of Digital Marketing, a master brainstormer and avid coffee drinker. Andrea joined Rave in August 2017, after 10 years of proposal and corporate marketing at an environmental engineering firm. You'll find her working with her amazing team in writing and producing blogs like this one, improving your journey to and through our website, and serving you up the best email content. When she's not in front of a keyboard, she's chasing after her three daughters or indulging in her husband's latest recipe. Andrea has a Bachelor's degree in Marketing/Management from Northeastern University and an MBA from Curry College.
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