Making the Transition From Working in City Hall to Working From Home

As government agencies around the country address the current public health emergency, communicators have been charged with developing effective and creative messaging for residents, a unique challenge to say the least. Over the next few weeks several 3CMA members will share the details and outcomes of their COVID-19 information campaigns, continuing the founding principle of 3CMA that ideas are for sharing.

By Sharon Riddick Hoggard
Marketing Manager | City of Portsmouth, Virginia 

There’s an old adage that says “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and from personal experience I can tell you that it’s unequivocally the truth. 

As a public relations and marketing professional, I am accustomed to monitoring local and national news, social media channels, the municipal television station and other communication channels. I keep our leadership and city department heads apprised of new ideas and trends, as well as what other municipalities are doing to connect with their residents. Listening via these channels also provides our leadership with feedback from our residents allowing the city departments to respond to questions, complaints and requests for services.

Communications is a tough business and one of the toughest audiences to reach . . . employees. Early in March, amidst COVID-19 concerns, the city manager issued orders to shut down city hall to the public. Offices would remain open across the organization and vital services would continue assistance from a distance. 

Task 1: create a communication plan and implement tactics to inform employees of plans to close offices to the public. Portsmouth utilizes several tools to ensure employees are continually informed and knowledgeable about all city operations including a listserv, website, bulletin boards, flyers, etc. Messages were created and distributed. The city’s residents and local media were informed of the change in Portsmouth’s operational status using these same tools but also included a social media element.

On Friday, March 27, after news stories about the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the devastating effects of the virus, I asked my boss if it were possible for me to work from home. This was a difficult decision. Fear of becoming infected with coronavirus, because of underlying health conditions, left me little choice. I’ve been working from home since then, a feat for which I believed I had no discipline. 

But difficult times call for hard decisions, and a pandemic has shown me I have the right stuff to get the job done. In my assessment, and looking at the volume of work completed over the last three months, I have never been more productive. Working from home has allowed me the luxury of taking breaks between tasks and assignments, something I would rarely do at the office. 

Task 2: continuous communication with Portsmouth residents to make them aware that although city hall is closed, the peoples’ business is still being handled. “We are here and we are conducting business,” is the primary message. “We, your public servants, are still engaged.” The Marketing & Communications team, including our department head, the public affairs officer, 311 Non-Emergency Call Center manager, the PCTV Channel 48 crew and yours truly continue to craft and disseminate news, messages, videos and updates for the public. We adapted an idea from another municipality and launched the Assistance from a Distance campaign. As part of the campaign, an informational poster was created and disseminated via the web and social media. We also advertised Assistance from a Distance in the local newspaper prominently displaying telephone numbers, links and videos. From those, residents could virtually access city services - from the assessor’s office to city council meetings; from library services to mosquito control; from museum activities to recycling and trash collection; and much more.  

311 Non-Emergency Call Center311 Non-Emergency Call Center

Task 3: systematically cancelling a multitude of diverse upcoming special events – city sponsored and/or sanctioned. Cancelling time-honored, big public-draw events is a monster of a job especially when these events are promoted in a region of more than 1.5 million people. Because the pandemic impacts were continuing to evolve, individual organizations, event sponsors and city departments cancelled events on a month-by-month basis while monitoring COVID-19 updates from the governor, the CDC and the local health department.

Portsmouth used its event calendar, managed by its marketing agency and city staff, to cancel events. The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, celebrating its 68th year, was cancelled. The 30th Annual Umoja Festival came next, then Portsmouth’s popular Sunset Thursdays Summer Concert Series. The whole concert season was cancelled just last month and for a city that relies on attractions such as museums and special events, the cancellation of these events has taken its toll emotionally and financially. At this writing, it remains unknown if any of the city’s fall events will happen.

A former department head once told me I needed to always be flexible. And he was so right. You definitely have to be flexible to work from home. You rely heavily on technology and your colleagues to ensure everything works correctly.  

Lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. Leadership understands that the communications process is critical – Every person in a leadership role understands communications and its science. They also realizes that continued communication with all publics is essential. 
  2. Resiliency is encouraged and celebrated – City employees are resilient across the organization. Even in a pandemic, we continue to deliver services to protect, inform citizens and provide amenities that improve the quality of life. 
  3. Journaling work activity is cathartic – Chronically work activity will also help in departmental reporting at a later date.
  4. Memberships in professional associations remain important – A plethora of vital information has been released over the last three months from groups including the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), 3CMA, Ragan Crisis Communications, LinkedIn, American Marketing Association (AMA). Others have provided time-tested communications solutions, new ideas and methods for reaching diverse audiences, tips for working from home effectively and timely news about our industry.

Working from home definitely has advantages, and it has shown me that I was absolutely right for investing in technology for the home.