COVID-19: Municipalities communicative needs for a new normality

Article by Laura Toset, Campaigns Manager

COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the way we understand and relate to the world, the city, and our neighbours.

The social, environmental, and economic consequences will be extremally important, and municipalities will need to develop innovative and ambitious strategies to respond to the new citizens’ communication and information needs. Local governments will need their involvement and commitment to meet the challenges of this new normality that is looming, and information and awareness campaigns are key elements during this process.

The post-lockdown scenario will gradually evolve. Some initial measures may likely be discarded, and others upgraded but this new scenario will offer us great challenges and opportunities.


Municipalities new challenges

In terms of challenges, in the very short term, City Councils are called to play a leading role in communication and citizens awareness, trade and services, visitors (among others) on their behavioural patterns and health or social distancing norms.

Awareness on the new patterns of behaviour: As we have already seen, as the deconfinement process moves forward (and the gradual transition to the new normality), communication and awareness patterns of social distancing, use and access to public space and facilities and the health protocols that are determined, will become increasingly relevant. All these, require adopting new habits and norms that may be uncomfortable or difficult for citizens to understand, but also because there is a possibility that the danger perception will diminish and this will allow for a relaxing effect on citizens.

It will be necessary to report on aspects such as social distance on public services and facilities, public transport and which will be the new guidelines, for instance, for leisure activities and access to parks and beaches. Proper communication will also be necessary when reopening shops, bars, restaurants and terraces; and in general, to activities that may imply citizens agglomerations.

Communication on new medical waste management: Taken other affected countries experiences and the actions that are being planned in Spain, new medical waste (masks, gloves, blinders, etc.) that we started to produce/use during lockdown, will prevail for a long period of time, still is uncertain for how long, but for which citizens need to have clear instructions on its segregation paths. Sick and non-sick people should treat this waste differently. In addition, it’s necessary to explain the importance of not leaving this waste outside the containers or in open bins, such as those present on streets or parks. This information is key for protecting the population, and particularly cleaning services workers, ensuring a proper waste management for this new type of materials.

Now more than ever, it will be important to share responsibility with the citizens appealing to respect and empathy towards the waste managers workers who shouldn’t be exposed to the risks arising from medical waste.

Dealing with the large volume of information (and misinformation): During these weeks we are living with a large volume of information focused on COVID-19 that we could compare it to an ‘intoxication’. Often, what we read in the media or we hear through friends and family is not consistent with what is explained elsewhere.

Administrations, as a reliable source of information, should make an important effort to generate secure information and data to the citizens, providing direct and clear messages adapted to different citizen’s needs.

Contingency plans for a potential second wave: We mustn’t discard that a second infection wave, previous to the coronavirus vaccine availability, exists and is a real threat. New focused epidemic regrowth may also occur. In either case, we need to be prepared for a fast response which mitigates the impact and potential expansion of these outbreaks. It has already been proven, at the origin of this pandemic, that raising public awareness in order to get citizens involvement is essential for diseases suppression.

As such, as administrations will need to have containment plans, to guarantee the continuity of the public services, and they should also have a crisis communication strategy to be quickly and widely activated in case of regrowth or second wave scenarios.

Do not undo the path that had been built in environmental awareness

On the other hand, we should be aware that municipalities need to reorient and strengthen the ongoing environmental campaigns that will become more relevant as a result of COVID-19 and the risk of taking steps backward in all that was gained in environmental awareness in the latest years is present.

Prevent the use of public transport dropdown and encourage active mobility: Following Government’s recommendations, and restrictions arising from the state of alarm, public transport usage has dropped significantly, but the most worrying is that 20% of former public transport users state that after lockdown they will prefer to use private vehicle, and the same state 25% of those who used to do it on foot[1].

It should be noted that from the above data, and as a result of what the government has already announced, and what is already being seen in cities around the world, it could be presumed that part of this would likely imply bicycle use, which can become an ideal mean of transportation ensuring social distancing rules.

Therefore, it will be necessary to make significant efforts to prevent a rise in car or motorbike uses, to ensure public transport users safety and provide alternatives to citizens on non-polluting active mobility systems like walking and cycling.

Also, now more than ever, citizens are experiencing how our mobility patterns affect the quality of the air we breathe. Therefore, awareness actions will be key to showing that, by modifying our travel behaviours, we can achieve goals to improve our quality of life.

Make rational use of plastics: Until the start of the pandemic, one of the environmental problems on which there was a faster and more intense population awareness around the globe, and on more progresses have been made, it was in the fight against undiscerning plastics use and its consequent contamination issues. We now face the risk of reversing much of what had been achieved.

With COVID-19 crisis, we have seen that plastics have crucial health applications but we have also seen how, due to the fear of infection, packaged products and disposable items consumption has increased.

This will be one of the challenges where deeper thoughts will be needed. How to attend to the reasonable reluctance and citizens safeguards and, at the same time, to the need for rational use of plastic?

Commitment to responsible and sustainable consumption:  Another aspect that is being significantly transformed and modified is our consumption pattern. The small non-essential trade is closed, and only basic needs establishments remain open. Citizens are wary of leaving home and much of the face-to-face shopping has gone online; this means that e-commerce demand has increased by an average of 80%. When we return to normality, municipalities will have to take action to restore consumers’ confidence and tranquillity in small and local businesses, to boost the local economy that has been severely damaged, and to regain the lost ground for e-commerce platforms.

On the other hand, with this crisis, the debate on the relation between the pandemic and the environmental and social implications of the current global manufacturing model, distribution and consumption patterns was spread widely. The time has arrived to educate citizens towards a different consumption model.

As for the opportunities arising from the COVID-19 crisis, if we compare the cities of today with those before the confinement we could see how the air we breathe is cleaner than ever, how nature recovers spaces and prominence, how volunteer networks have been set up to assist the most vulnerable ones, how we have learned to do more with less… and here arises the great debate: which kind of society do we want for the future? How will we make the transition to the new normality? We have the opportunity and, therefore, also the responsibility, to improve our actions, to seek a more open, fair, polite and committed society to other citizens and to the environment. Administrations must accompany the citizenship in this process, and we must keep our eyes on the opportunities for the future and the great room for improvement and well-being that we could achieve.

Communicators and civic agents, the key to lasting communication

The transition will be long and gradual, and it will be necessary to continuously plan the best communication, participation and awareness actions according to the needs and the public to be reached.

In any case, as a result of Anthesis Lavola’s experience in the design, planning and implementation of citizen awareness campaigns, it can be stated that direct interaction with the population is key to achieve the goals set by our clients. Some of the most relevant reasons are:

  • Empathy: Citizens are more receptive to receiving information when it is transmitted by a similar person, basically another citizen. Receptivity, in many population segments, increases if it is not communicated by a law enforcement officer or similar.
  • Speech adaptation: each person has knowledge and convictions prior to the awareness action; detecting them is key to adapt the speech and generating maximum impact on the receiver.
  • Training as the key to success: A good communicator must have different skills and knowledge (technical and relational) to successfully challenge the public. We train Anthesis Lavola’s communicators teams in communication skills, and in the post-confinement, training on conflicts mediation will be especially important.
  • Raise awareness versus inform: An informative action transmits a message in a one-way mode, the sender can adapt the channel, language or format to the receiver but does not consider other conditions of the person to whom contents are being addressed to. On the contrary, in awareness actions, personalized attention becomes critical, the receiver and it’s personal context are the sender starting point to adapt the communication and expose the message ensuring its understanding.
  • A smile: the first impression made by the communicator is very important; a good presence and a positive attitude to break the ice of the first contact allowing communicator intrusion in a mutual trust atmosphere.

In the post-COVID scenario, the challenge that we will be facing is a major one, the effort required to the society will be important, but it can also provide us with a unique opportunity for improvement. We have the collective opportunity, and therefore also the responsibility to improve our actions, to seek a more just, civilized society, open and committed to other citizens and the environment.

The key will be to have the backing involvement and citizens support in each of the actions and needs that are generated. For this purpose awareness campaigns will be essential and will need to be conducted by expert communicators and supported by imaginative and refined communicative actions.

[Download the presentation on awareness campaigns for the new communication challenges of municipalities in the post-COVID19 (in Spanish)] 

[1] Third wave of the Drivers’ Observatory of the Real Automóvil Club de España
[2] InfoRetail Magazine