Your communication has the power to protect health and save lives
3CMA is fortunate that several of our members are agency professionals that work specifically with government, many of whom are our members. Jessica First of Kilter has been working with the cities of West Hollywood and Temple City over the past several months on their communication efforts during COVID-19. She shares what they learned in crafting their messaging during this challenging time.
By Joe Prichard
Kilter and City of West Hollywood, CA
Even in the best of times grabbing the attention of an audience with public sector communications is a challenge. Distilling complex policy information down to something that is both understandable and engaging is no mean feat.
Today as our communities grapple with an unprecedented new reality, where toilet paper is suddenly a hot commodity and crafters are making face masks out of old bras, that challenge is magnified exponentially. Over the years we have worked with numerous public agencies to tackle all sorts of communication challenges. In all these engagements we were guided by a few simple principles that helped focus and strengthen our efforts.
Our work with the City of West Hollywood on their COVID-19-related communication efforts began in the early days of the pandemic lockdown. Over the course of the last five months we’ve seen huge changes in needs from week to week and sometimes even day to day. In early May we created a series of communication touchpoints around the message “We’re All A Part of Something Bigger” in an effort to strengthen community ties in a time of social distancing.
Over the coming weeks we found it necessary to evolve the creative first in small ways (adding face masks to the social distanced characters) and later in larger ways (pivoting from an aspirational community-building message to a more-to-the point public health directive). Through it all we endeavored to keep a consistent tone and visual language that would be familiar to WeHo residents as being hallmarks of the city’s communications.
“Our community is media savvy and it’s a challenge to break through the noisy clutter of advertising and messaging in West Hollywood. But with strategy that has a flair for style and eye for nuance we strike a balance that helps us to resonate with our constituents. This has been especially vital when the topic is COVID-19. This design work quite literally has the power to protect health and to save lives.”
— Joshua Schare
Communications Manager, City of West Hollywood
In this time of multiple overlapping national crises, facts on the ground can change quickly. A message or sentiment that seemed appropriate a week or two ago can suddenly seem wildly out of date. To be effective you need to be ready to rapidly evolve your communication efforts to meet the moment. Avoid being overly precious about your work. This is a time best suited to rapid ideation and iteration. Whenever possible try to plan ahead and create flexible communication frameworks that can be easily updated when your communication needs change while still maintaining a recognizable and consistent voice.
Say it simply
In times of crisis or trauma, it’s particularly difficult for people to focus on complicated or detailed messages. In their book Strategic Interventions for People in Crisis, Trauma, and Disaster mental health researchers Diane Sullivan Everstine and Louis Everstine write “communicating with acutely traumatized people can be a delicate process. Because they are overwhelmed, what one says to them should be as uncomplicated as possible.”
Keeping this in mind, your communications should be focused on conveying the essentials in the clearest most direct way possible. Although the desire to present all available information to the public is understandable, avoid the urge to overload every touchpoint with details that are not directly relevant to the primary message. Ask yourself what are the key takeaways you want to convey and then rank them in order of importance. If your list runs to more than three or four items, you’re probably trying to do too much at once.
In West Hollywood we’ve applied this lens to every communication touchpoint. Rather than having a single piece try to convey a laundry list of information, we worked with the city to create discrete targeted touchpoints that each address specific pieces of vital information. Headlines are short, to the point and supported by clear unambiguous graphics.
Find your voice
When Temple City’s campaign focused on messaging that would rally its residents together, identifying the correct tone was crucial. The optimistic voice crafted for the campaign deliberately struck a different note than the dire messaging residents were being bombarded with elsewhere. By employing an unexpected and bright tone and friendly relatable illustrations, we were able to capture the attention of residents drawing their focus to the important public health resources the city had to offer.
"Our lawn sign campaign was an overwhelming success with our residents! It provided a way for Temple Citians to come together as a community in this time of crisis and also served as an effective vehicle for getting the word out about the resources the city has to offer."
— Bryan Cook
City Manager, City of Temple City
When you communicate in a generic institutional voice, it's easy for your message to get lost in the fray. In this moment you are competing against scores of other sources sharing conflicting and often erroneous information. By finding a tone and a perspective that's authentic to your municipality you increase the likelihood of cutting through the noise and reaching your intended audience.
The moment we are living in and the challenges you face in shaping public communications can often feel overwhelming. The tactics outlined above are not magic bullets, but when applied in concert they can have a tremendous impact. By always keeping your audience in mind you can ensure that the work you do will have lasting impact.