“The beauty of public-sector work is you have to stay on your toes and address what’s next with lessons learned.”
That’s how veteran communicator Karen Boyd described her work in an unprecedented post- pandemic world as director of communications for the City of Oakland. A new Round Table member, Boyd has overseen dozens of high-profile and complex communications challenges facing Oakland and the region over the past 25 years, including the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, Occupy Oakland, and three Warriors championship parades.
Boyd was joined by fellow PR strategists, Alicia Trost, chief communications officer at the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART), and Francis Zamora, chief of staff for the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management (DEM), to share lessons learned and insights about what the future may hold for communicators. Named by Muck Rack as one of the “Top 15 CCOs” to follow on Twitter in 2021, Alicia Trost has received national accolades for breaking the government communications mold by having honest, frank, and engaging conversations with riders. Francis Zamora has helped lead San Francisco’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, drug overdose epidemic, and Super Bowl 50. (Zamora’s participation marked a return to the Round Table; he was also a member of a virtual panel, titled Communicating in a Pandemic, in June 2020.)
Most public sector practitioners have crisis plans in place, but a lingering pandemic may not have been part of it. Two years since lockdowns began and as infection rates continue to wax and wane, thoughts turn toward what’s next. What will the new normal be? Are virtual press conferences here to stay? How do we engage diverse audiences?
On May 19, during a virtual San Francisco Public Relations Round Table panel, these agile, innovative communicators candidly shared their invaluable lists of lessons and best practices for keeping up with the pace of change. The illuminating conversation was deftly moderated by Sarah Segal of Segal Communications, a former board member who worked on production teams at CBS and NBC News before moving agency-side.
Are Things Getting Back to Normal?
- “I’m not sure what normal means. We are always in crisis response,” said Boyd. Notably, she joined the panel from Oakland’s Emergency Operation Center (EOC) as part of an earthquake drill. “COVID-19 protocols are now part of our response. For instance, at shelters, entrants need to be vaccinated. This is the new normal.”
- “We are starting at ground zero. We are rewriting the strategy and coming up with all new communications techniques,” said Trost. She detailed her experience following the announcement of strict stay-at-home rules that forced 7 million Bay Area residents to shelter in place, dramatically impacting BART ridership. “The pandemic changed how we communicate. Following the first shelter-in-place order, I was back in the office the next day. Riding the trains was important. And being in the office gave me access to the GM. I told my staff that they were not allowed to do virtual media interviews from home and suggested going to a BART station or coming into the office. Backgrounds are important,” she said.
“Learn As You Go” Communications
- “In December, the Department of Emergency Management shifted its focus from the pandemic to the drug overdose epidemic in the Tenderloin following the mayor’s declaration of a neighborhood state of emergency. The pandemic staff were redeployed and implemented communications lessons learned from COVID-19,” said Zamora.
- “I was looking back on some notes taken at the start of COVID-19,” said Boyd. “Aptly, my boss had instructed, ‘We want our messages grounded in fact, not fear. This is a marathon, not a sprint.’”
- “We invested in inexpensive equipment so we could livestream several press conferences. On the one hand, it’s great because more reporters can watch virtually, but it then becomes challenging to get reporters to show up in-person,” said Trost.
- “Ask yourself what would make someone on Twitter stop. Think about the backgrounds. Take risks,” said Trost of BART. By putting herself in her followers’ shoes, Alicia garnered 2 million impressions from one instance. She live-streamed a press conference and “toilet paper cutting” from Powell Street BART station to showcase renewed access to bathrooms. As commuters walked by, she held up signs that read “Gotta Go?” drawing the likes of Congresswoman Barbara Lee to retweet.
- “Hosting deep dive topical media round tables with a panel of experts and reporters can be helpful when dealing with complex subject matter. This is an opportunity to explain the complexity of a situation so that reporting will be more balanced. Arranging for staff to talk with reporters provides more informed reporting down the line,” said Boyd.
- “The pandemic made clear and exacerbated what we already knew: The government isn’t always the most trusted source of information,” said Boyd. Meeting with the community to ask for their help regarding what they find compelling as far as copy, visuals and channels isimportant. “We paid community-based organizations to print our messages in their languages.”
- “Be creative with email. We reached out to disgruntled riders who had contacted customer support in the past. We inquired if they were aware of the changes made during the pandemic and asked them to opt-in. This led to 300 new email subscribers,” said Trost. She segmented subscribers and reengaged them with targeted messaging after inquiring, “Are you taking a bike on board? Are you driving to the station? Which station?”
“One of the biggest challenges was the disciplined use of language when communicating with the two different workforces,” said Boyd. “Initially, we had used the term ‘Back to Work’ when in fact, many frontline workers had been commuting throughout the pandemic, while office workers had been remote. Specifying ‘Safe Return to Work’ was more accurate and inclusive.
It Wasn’t All Bad: Innovative Communications Practices Sparked by the Pandemic
- Francis Zamora shared that hosting virtual public hearings from the Joint Information Center (JIC) is one pandemic-era change that will likely endure. “Setting up a JIC unit solely dedicated for virtual meetings increased accessibility for the public.”
- Alicia Trost is accustomed to rising before dawn to respond to dozens of messages while squeezing in a workout. “After the pandemic began, I suddenly had this extra time to do amazing, meaningful projects. We launched a youth-led sexual harassment awareness initiative and a Tik Tok channel. We engaged with youth who love transit, and paid influencers to produce videos for us.” Karen Boyd agreed: “Moving to storytelling and visuals is challenging when you’re focused on media relations, but authentic messages and messengers is the future.”
- “We learned that we needed to build translation teams for health and safety flyers, videos, social media posts and fact sheets – in 10 different languages,” said Francis Zamora. “The Bay Area is so diverse. We need to reach people where they’re at, particularly communities of color. When we asked people about their needs, things really turned around in terms of engagement.”
- “The pandemic led to increased participation in public meetings, which is positive. It’s both-and. I think we’ll be in some form of hybrid for the foreseeable future,” said Boyd.
“Our relationships are much stronger,” added Boyd. During the pandemic, she started holding daily stand-up meetings that allowed for camaraderie, fun, information-sharing and problem-solving. “We will continue these meetings because they connect the dots operationally.” “Our relationships are the silver lining of the pandemic.” Zamora concurred.
Enjoy the recording of this meeting:
Round Table’s 2022 Scholarship Winners Introduced
Following the panel discussion, Round Table Chair Jay Rooney presented the Philip N. McCombs’ 2022 Scholarship recipients, who introduced themselves virtually. They include:
- Baneet Bains, a junior at the University of San Francisco (USF), majoring in Communication and minoring in Public Relations.
- Erin Brown, a junior at USF, majoring in Communications Studies and minoring in Media Studies.
- Hur-Ali Rizvi, a senior at UC Davis, majoring in Communications and minoring in Technology Management.
- Claire Murphy, a senior at Santa Clara University, majoring in Communications (with an emphasis in Journalism) and History, minoring in Philosophy, was awarded the Patricia L. Harden 2022 Scholarship.
- Nick Garcia, a senior at USF, majoring in Communications Studies, minoring in French Studies, was awarded the Sam Singer 2022 Scholarship.