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Best Practices for Effective Messaging During the Coronavirus Crisis

Best Practices for Effective Messaging During the Coronavirus Crisis
Best Practices for Effective Messaging During the Coronavirus Crisis

Best Practices for Effective Messaging During the Coronavirus Crisis

As conversations about the coronavirus grow in numbers and become a top of mind concern for the public, we acknowledge the pressing need of local governments to provide residents with relevant and reliable information and to make sure that they are exposed to it. 

As conversations about the coronavirus grow in numbers and become a top of mind concern for the public, we acknowledge the pressing need of local governments to provide residents with relevant and reliable information and to make sure that they are exposed to it. 

While communications teams around the country are doing a phenomenal job in producing and circulating accurate information, the massive amount of online conversations, coupled with varying levels of public concern and fear, can make it harder for residents to extract and process the right information. All the while comms teams have a huge workload to handle right now, and prioritizing is essential.

This reality makes the inherent challenges of local government communications even more difficult to tackle, and so much more crucial. The right messaging could make the difference between an informed, responsible community, and a panicking one. Therefore, PIOs need answers to questions such as, where are residents gathering during this particular time of crisis? What messaging resonates best with their community? How does city communications not get lost in the flood of information? Questions like these are essential to accurately answer when building and refining your local governments messaging plan for COVID-19.

At Zencity, our goal is to help local governments by providing them data about their communities needs, based on conversations across channels like social media, local media and 311.

And that is why we created this report. The following communication best practices are based on the analysis of over 92K tweets and posts from over 100 US Zencities posted in the past weeks. The report covers real, data-based patterns of effective messaging about coronavirus – publications made by cities that received substantially positive traction from their community. Key findings include what types of messages work, which materials should you use and what channels are the ones to use when pushing out information.

Our goal is to promote the mutual exchange of knowledge and that the identified trends and conclusions will enable communication departments to quickly obtain best practices from other cities and hopefully, apply them to their own messaging efforts during this challenging time. We also hope this report could help rally internal stakeholders about creating effective messaging and investing the required resources in this dire time of need.

Before we dive in to the takeaways, a quick word about methodology in this report:

  • The term ‘item’ refers to all publications (posts/images/videos etc) made on social media – Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. 
  • The term ‘positive traction’ refers to the sum of likes, shares, and comments expressing gratitude and positive sentiment for the information/ content posted – the sum of all types of engagements indicating an item had a positive and meaningful impact.
  • Finally, ‘official communication channels’ refer to all social media accounts and pages managed by people working in city hall and sharing information on its behalf – the mayor, specific departments including police and fire department, and of course the city’s official Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.

Takeaway #1 - Balance Between Brief and Detailed Messages​


Best performing items contained 30-60 words, meaning two to four sentences long. Performance by Text Length

Based on the analysis of 1,600 items posted by official communication channels in 88 cities, our analysis shows that items containing 30-60 words gained more than 2X more positive traction on average than items containing less than 25 words (one sentence) or over 75 words (more than five sentences).

pasadena coronavirus messaging

In this context, it is also useful to consider these recommendations by the Harvard School of Public Health on how to share health information on social media:

  • Provide the name of the source/institute you’re relying on and its credentials.
  • When possible, provide not just information, but also the logic behind it. 
  • Include only critical information.

Ultimately, aim for succinctness and accessibility with your messaging. If your post conveys the same clear message to a millennial and a senior citizen, then you are on the right track.

Takeaway #2 - Adding an Image is Good, Adding the Right Image is Better

Items with informative images that presented a key message had higher positive traction.

While it is a well-known fact that items with images gain more traction than items without images, it is important to be calculated when selecting specific images for usage.

Through our analysis, we identified that items with the key message presented as an image proved more shareable and received more positive traction, on average, compared to other items. For instance, the average positive traction per item was 1.5X higher compared to footage from the scene, and 2X higher compared to virus stock images and posts with no images.

performance by image

Here are examples of all four types:
city post

Key message as an image –image containing informative text, usually the item’s key message. This excellent example was posted by the City of Ontario CA. 

coronavirus sanitation


Footage or video from the scene – image displaying medial or local teams in action, including image or video of official press conferences.


coronavirus image


Image of the virus – an image of either the virus, its name, or both.


post with no image


No image– At first glance, the lack of an image can make the post seem like it was a mistake or there was a bug. This diminishes trust and residents’ attention.

Takeaway #3 - Increase Residents’ Cooperation by Using Clear and Decisive Phrasing

Items shared by the local government that contained specific instructions or a clear call-to-action had significantly higher positive traction amongst residents.

We analyzed the 821 posts made by official communication channels and classified their content into different clusters using our AI technology.

Items with specific instructions or a clear call-to-action gained 1.9X higher positive traction, on average, compared to items with general instructions or updates.

performance by content type

This example is a great step by the City of Seguin to candidly tackle misinformation on the internet, which is particularly rampant and challenging to identify in the case of COVID-19.

seguin rumor control

Takeaway #4 - Reach Residents on Their Primary Sources of Information​

Cooperating with local media and reaching out to local influencers to share information on Twitter using the city’s hashtag can increase traction substantially.

While this report offers guidelines for increasing traction on official communication channels, the main goal is to get the message out. That is why it’s also important to aim to reach your residents through their primary channels of information, even if they are  separate from city-owned channels.

Accordingly, we identified which type of sources attract the most considerable attention/following – so that you could monitor and utilize them to spread your message.

For example, news outlets elicited the highest discourse volume in 69 out of 100 cities, meaning it’s important to share information through digital press conferences and press releases.

Leading Channels of Communication

Independent tweets- tweets by Twitter users referring to Coronavirus in the context of their city – gained the highest volume in 17 of the cities. Zencity’s dashboard can be used to identify and track organic resident tweets. 

Educational institutions’- social media (such as the School District’s official accounts) and NGOs were the leading sources in 4 cities, while citizen groups and official communication channels led the discourse in 3 cities.

The examination of channels that are not officially owned by the city can also help you identify key contributors of misinformation. It is rare that misinformation will be communicated  directly to the city, so it is important to proactively monitor these additional channels to be able to quickly dispel inaccurate information/rumors.

Takeaway #5 - The Right Online Presence is Vital as Early as Possible​

While news outlets led the discourse in most of the cities, our analysis shows that for cities participating in early stages of coronavirus-related discourse (with an initial volume discourse of less than 400 engagement points), posts made by official channels in early stages substantially reduce the number of comments speculating and spreading inaccurate information.

We’ll use word clouds to demonstrate – the size of the words represents the number of repetitions amongst residents’ social media discourse.

Here’s a word cloud from a city that posted according to these best practices early on:city word cloudThe city’s first post referred to: 

  • The number of confirmed cases (zero)
  • The number of residents in self-quarantine and the reason that lead to the quarantine
  • Specific instructions for residents
  • Explicit ways to stay updated (including links)

In comparison, the following word cloud demonstrates commenters’ debate regarding the seriousness of the situation in a city that had not  communicated directly with its residents during the early stages of the crisis.city word cloud 2

While some residents expressed fear, others claimed that “people are adding to the hysteria” since they did not read an entire news article. Also, commenters speculated regarding who was “patient zero” and whether a local woman coming back from China did or did not have the virus

In general the discourse from this city was markedly composed of conjectures by the community, confused information, and some public anxiety.

Wrap Up

This report is inspired by the tireless, innovative work of our partner cities and counties. We are honored to be partnering with such dedicated local government teams across the US and applaud their grit and professionalism in light of this pandemic. 

As the importance of local governments during this crisis is even more in the foreground, our ultimate goal in creating this report is to give officials the resources they need to  streamline their communications workflows, expedite and tighten messaging, and to highlight the impact that city messaging has right now. We also aspire to create dialogue across US cities and help learn from each other. We hope this report can help in your vital tasks during this tumultuous time period.

Be on the lookout for additional resources from our team during this evolving public health crisis. We are here to help you make the best data-informed decisions for tackling this challenge.

If there is any other way our team could help you at this time, especially by focusing on what’s happening in your community, don’t hesitate to reach out to us ASAP.

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