Best practices to keep the public engaged and mentally healthy in a crisis

Eric Singer

Keeping the public together and focused on the positives in a crisis is probably one of the key challenges today for government officials and public information officers. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the challenge is even more daunting. I had the opportunity to speak on the PAST, Public Affairs Science and Technology Fusion Cell News Line with Brandi Bates. She is the Public Information Officer at the Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners in Milton, Florida, which is in the Florida panhandle.

Bates reinforced to me that PIOs are having to do some serious 24/7 online social media management to keep the public engaged and mentally healthy: “Many people may not realize how stressed they are but may notice they have difficulty paying attention or they are snapping at family members or co-workers. Overuse of alcohol and drugs – prescription or not – is another sign of mental and emotional strain.” Bates said social media, especially Facebook and Nextdoor, are working in her community, but they’re working because of what she and her team are posting. For example: “We knew caring for all the animals in our shelter was going to be a challenge. We put out an appeal for adopters as well as fosters to get us through the next few weeks to months and an amazing thing happened, people rose to our need and we cleared out the shelter, for the first time in 25 years. We are also sharing do-it-yourself dog toy projects on our animal shelter Facebook page for parents to do at home with their kids. We asked people to share photos of working at home with their pets and we got good engagement.”

Another local engagement project Bates is excited about is called “Unity in the Community.” She explained: “We recently reached out to Santa Rosa County’s fire, law enforcement, EMS and forestry partners and asked for their assistance. We created graphics for all of them, branded them with our logos but with some strategic messaging on how we are all united in our fight against COVID-19. They took their own photos to make a social-distanced, crowd-sourced video, with people and places in it that would have taken us more than a week to drive around, shoot and put together. It’s important for our residents to see how we are working together to protect them in a time where they may be feeling vulnerable.” (See “Unity in the Community” video link at the end of this article.)

In Bates’ view, government messages from the CDC, FEMA, her state health department and other official sources are critically important, but information officers need to realize that during times like these you also need to give the public something to smile about. She said: “Your social media posts get a lot more attention now, so use it well. Public information is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time so they can make the right decision. And it’s also a great time while you’ve got their attention to push out some positives about what your agency is doing.”

Click below for my entire Mp3 interview with Brandi Bates, who is the Public Information Officer at the Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners in Milton, Florida. You can view the county’s “Unity in the Community” video at the YouTube link here:

Flash Briefing – April 3, 2020