How small towns can cut the noise to communicate with residents during disasters

Township Supervisor Whitney Hoffman builds bridges and fills communication gaps in Pennsylvania.

Note: This is the second guest message from Whitney Hoffman. She shares her thoughts on her ability to prepare for and recover from disasters. -Becky

Guest Post from Whitney Hoffman, Township Supervisor at Kennett Township PA

Small towns in the country are facing a crisis of communication.

We are seeing shrinking media markets, where newspapers in their hometown are going down or going digital. TV and radio also face fierce competition for advertising funds. As a result, fewer and fewer media have the time or interest to take stock of what is happening on Main Street or at the local planning commission meeting.

In addition, busy people see their attention divided between almost every platform imaginable, and some people pay less attention to traditional notifications, such as mail.

What kind of problems does this communication crisis pose?

Here in Chester County, Pennsylvania, we sit outside of Philadelphia and just north of the Delaware border. The Philadelphia media market is dominant, so much so that Delaware does not even have its own television channel – just an hour on the PBS channel and a few local radio stations. The Delaware newspaper, the News Journal, usually covered much of the news in the region, but since its purchase by Gannett, it has become much smaller, thinner and has far fewer resources to cover than in the previous years. .

When we enacted an emergency service tax increase in our township last year, all public meetings and budget meetings were covered by journalists. The local county newspaper reportedly mentioned it. We've sent out e-mail notifications of meetings to everyone who has chosen our e-mail notification list, and our agendas are posted online. We put notices on our Facebook page. We also record and broadcast all meetings of our supervisory board on Youtube. We even sent a postcard to each household to inform them of the tax increase. Still, it is only when the tax bill was mailed that people started calling and going to public meetings, insisting that it was the first time that they heard about it.

Some people turned to a new app called NextDoorNow, complaining about the tax increase and wondering why we had not posted anything. Some people wanted to know by SMS. Anything else if a letter against a postcard would have been better. What we learned from the experience was that there was more than one or two channels of communication, but several. And for the sake of our staff and our mental health, we had to make sure that we had established "official" communication channels, where people could get the facts rather than the rumors on many online forums.

Communications in crisis

When recent violent storms hit this year, I started to think about how lucky we are to have a variety of communication channels that work, even if none of them seem to effectively reach everyone. For cities without a Facebook page, a community group, an email list or other means of communication: how are IDPs supposed to know if they are safe to return home? If the power is restored? What are the steps you can take to secure assets or even take action if you have to abandon them for a while? What does it show if you need FEMA insurance or support, if all your records and perhaps even those of other people have been destroyed? Can people find out about the official city webpage, or are there other means of communication to get the message across more effectively?

Gather a diaspora

When a community is scattered over a large area due to a storm, communications become more difficult. The rumor mill will begin to disintegrate immediately, especially if reliable information provided by the authorities is not available.

Although I can talk at length about how to choose the official communication channel (s) for your community, the important point to remember from our experience with raising taxes is that it is necessary to establish formal channels of communication so that people know where to go. reliable information. This will likely be a combination of channels, ranging from email, Facebook groups, Facebook pages, Twitter or other selected channels. You should make sure these channels and links are prominently displayed on your website and social networking profiles. And you must regularly remind the public that he can sign up to receive e-mails from local governments and then treat those assets as gold. Do not use them for advertising, but for important communication at the community level. In this way, people will gradually know where they can go to get real and reliable information, even if they have moved away from the region completely.

It pays if such a crisis were to occur to many communities devastated by this year's storms.

Do what works – even if it's not "right"

I went to a meeting of a group of local businesses and I asked them how they had discovered what was happening and how we could communicate better. Several people said that they had just tracked the articles on my personal Facebook page because I had a tendency to post updates during the storm or when we learned that roads were closed, etc. . I was both shocked and satisfied. Without realizing it, people followed and shared my posts on Facebook about the community. It had become a de facto portal in addition to our usual Facebook page for communication. Now, although that means I have to be a little cautious, because more people than I know "look" at what I post on Facebook, it also means that they see me as a reliable source of information when they need it most. It's not the official public communication channel I want to create, but it's a working channel.

If you experience a crisis in your community, contact local influencers – leaders of organizations, groups, etc. – and asking them to share important messages could be extremely important in a crisis or emergency. Making a list of these people and updating their contact information every year would be a great idea, if it were necessary. Many cities already have an emergency preparedness plan and a list of local organizers and influencers could be a good addition to this plan.

Communication is critical

It is very easy to assume that "everyone" knows something or that you have done everything possible to let them know. We discovered that people listened to different "channels" based on many factors. You can not rely on a single channel to make sure your message is heard.

The truth is that there are very few central communication channels and you need to make sure you create a variety of reliable channels so that they are available when you really need them. Build them now and you'll be in a much better position to resist any storm, be it economical or designed by Mother Nature.

More information about Whitney

I was sworn in as a Supervisor of Kennett Township in January 2016 and is now Vice-Chairperson effective January 3, 2017. I am the first elected supervisor in the Township's history. .

I currently work as a social media manager for Mingl Marketing and its sister company, Comfort Media Group in Philadelphia, and I also consult as a Digital Marketing Strategist for Project-Based Epic Marketing in Delaware.

My consulting company, Hoffman Digital Media, specializes in digital media strategy, content marketing and web management. I work with companies and organizations to help them develop and develop a 360-degree social media and social media marketing strategy, enabling them to target their potential customers online and measure the return on their investment. marketing investments. I regularly speak with companies and community organizations about social media, content strategy, business strategy, technology and digital citizenship issues to groups of all sizes.

Read Whitney's First Message, Planning Lessons Every Small City Can Learn from Disasters

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