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3 Takeaways from 2020 for Better County Management in 2021

Man standing over city skyline
Man standing over city skyline

It’s been over a year since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected, reshaping our lives, shattering economies, shutting down schools and small businesses, and, of course, compromising the well-being of millions. Although the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has begun, an optimistic outlook suggests that the earliest the majority of the American population could be fully vaccinated will be September. While this hopefully means the end of the pandemic is on-site, it seems like masks, physical distancing, and frequent handwashing will still be around for the longer haul.

In an attempt to return to our ‘normal’ way of life, local governments have been doing their part to achieve this. With a full year’s worth of learning under their belts and resilient communities, local leaders can rely on lessons learned from the past year rather than reinvent the wheel regarding COVID-19 management. Referring to real resident sentiment data from counties nationwide, we’ve pulled together a few key takeaways that can be applied in 2021 based on what worked and what didn’t in 2020.

Counties Top Covid-19 Concerns
Covid-19 Top Concerns - Sentiment Comparison
County Concerns report Graph 02 1
County Concerns report Graph 01 1

1. Preempt resident's concerns

Zencity’s data shows that in 2020, the most discussed issue in counties with COVID-19 was face masks and covers. Masks have remained a hot topic amongst citizens, and discussions about them have been contentious and often negative. A lack of clear federal guidance during the pandemic probably contributed to this as state and local government leaders were challenged to set their policies, leading to further confusion, conflict, and concern. The data also showed that discourse surrounding face masks in counties focused primarily on businesses, with over 45% of interactions representing general comments about the local economy. Many residents were confused about enforcement and the challenges businesses would face in ensuring that employees and customers complied with face mask guidelines. As recovering local economies becomes a top priority in 2021, it is without a doubt that face masks will remain to be a hot topic.

2021 Tip: As we journey through the next year, don’t pass over publicly available information, like resident discourse data, to help make and inform policy decisions and protocols – especially around the issues that matter to your residents the most. It may sound obvious, but what worked last time? Do it again this time, whether it’s clarifying mask guidelines across different jurisdictions in the county, providing masks, or certain levels of enforcement.

2. Stop the spread of misinformation with transparency

2020 saw the rise of misinformation and disinformation becoming a worthy opponent for official local government communication channels, leaving county leaders to innovate to promote the credibility and integrity of official information. For example, with vaccine rollouts beginning at varying degrees across the US at the turn of the new year, misinformation and skepticism were and are still significant challenges to successful vaccine operations in counties. At this crucial point in time, public conversation and the narrative around COVID-19 vaccines were being driven by non-government sources and organic resident discussions, resulting in the spread of false information. Zencity’s data showed that only a mere 15% of all discourse on COVID-19 vaccines was generated by the official local government sources.

In addition, Zencity’s data revealed that among county residents, the second most negatively discussed topics in 2020 were hospital capacity and confirmed cases, meaning people are discussing the data out there.

Engagement on these topics and the fact that they are a point of negativity provides an opportunity for county leaders to proactively be even more transparent in their local reporting and lead the conversations on these tough topics as we push through 2021. Many counties across the country, like Oneida County in New York, have set COVID-19 communication plans and online dashboards with metrics and guidelines regarding confirmed cases. Accordingly, many local governments have also rolled out vaccine information portals, like Pasadena, CA, which launched an effective FAQ all about their vaccination distribution and vaccine safety.

2021 Tip: Continue to drown out misinformation with accurate information. Always be truthful and honest with residents, even if it’s not great news to maintain trust between residents and county leaders. Various counties have taken a transparent approach to answering this need, creating online communication dashboards and resident information portals.

3. Cross-agency collaboration - ensure the right channels are being utilized

A county’s integral role in handling Public Health includes the need for external communication and focused messaging with residents. Official communication channels are social channels owned by the county or city. According to our data, from July through October 2020, 25% of official communications put out by cities were Covid-related, compared to only 16% of county official communications. Although cities dedicated a higher percentage of their public communication efforts to Coronavirus and public health than counties, the engagement generated by counties was similar to that of cities. These numbers suggest that residents look to county and city leaders for information on public health, and county and city governments should provide transparent and frequent updates to their constituents. We’ve seen similar patterns around messaging and the COVID-19 vaccine. To optimize resources, understanding which channels are most impactful is key as we move into the next phases of the pandemic, which include vaccinations and economic recovery.

2021 Tip: This year, county and city leaders should work in tandem to determine the most effective communication channels on a case-by-case basis and focus on releasing impactful and honest messaging in real time to put residents at ease. Whether it’s communicating about new strains, vaccines, policies, or strategies for reopening, cross-agency alignment and unified messaging are imperative.

Looking Towards the Future

These unprecedented times require a unique plan of attack that is constantly being improved based on lessons learned and community unity. While the next couple of years will continue to test and try our health and safety, the will to learn and help our neighbors will be our saving grace. Learn more about how Zencity is revolutionizing County Management.

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