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Revisiting the Pandemic Playbook, One Year Later

Feb 23, 2021

Contributed blog by Warren Kagarise, Digital Engagement Manager, King County, WA

I find myself making the same dark joke over and over: I imagine we’re still living in March 2020 and add a digit for each passing day. Today is the 359th day of March 2020 .

In many ways, we never left last March behind. We absorbed the lessons of the pandemic and stumbled into new challenges — and a new year.

In my community of King County and Seattle, WA, some of our earliest messages about the coronavirus carried the worst possible news. The first confirmed coronavirus death in the United States occurred in King County on Feb. 29, 2020.

(Since the coronavirus arrived in the United States, the timeline of COVID cases and deaths has been revised to reflect earlier deaths in other communities, but in the last days of February 2020, the world considered King County as a hot zone.)

As February turned to March, everything started to change quickly. The grim milestone meant my community and agency faced the coronavirus first and created a pandemic playbook on the fly. The chief lessons in our playbook:

  •       How to use each social platform to reach different audiences
  •       How to incorporate translated content and accessibility into our engagement
  •       What steps to take for reaching audiences without access to the internet or devices

We learned a lot in the initial 72 hours about how we needed to communicate — first and foremost, our digital strategy would need a high level of support to succeed. A hectic news conference hobbled by bad audio and overtaxed wifi drove home the need for better equipment.

With the federal government largely ceding leadership to states, counties and cities, agencies adopted a choose-your-own adventure approach to communicating about the coronavirus. In King County, throughout January and February of last year our planning focused on coronavirus preparedness.

We did not expect to lead with a death, let alone the first in the nation.

As a result, the early information we communicated carried a serious, official tone and largely focused on case numbers and contact tracing — something still possible due to the dearth of tests and the artificially low number of cases.

Because COVID-19 is the first global pandemic to arise during the smartphone era, social media shaped the crisis from the beginning.

With our community in the international spotlight, we initially shied away from using humor in our social media. So I watched with a mixture of admiration and wistfulness as other agencies tested out imaginative messages about handwashing and social distancing. (Eventually, as time passed and we adapted to a new normal, we started to crack a smile, too.)

The pandemic’s arrival served as a wake-up call to better serve everyone in our community. In King County, where our 2.2 million residents speak more than 170 languages, translated content became a life-saving link to information.

We also learned from our audiences on each social media platform and adjusted our content by channel. Facebook turned into a customer service hub, Instagram became a place to share our humanity, Twitter served as our information clearinghouse and Nextdoor got pressed into service for regional alerts.

As digital communicators, we also had to stay mindful of digital equity. Not everyone in our community had access to the information on our social media platforms or our website, so we had to devise analog ways to communicate in sync with our digital efforts.

The most effective strategy for analog and digital engagement alike often centered on involving communities in the outreach process early and often which meant internally… .

A government agency is not always the best messenger, so we leaned on trusted sources from organizations we had worked with or supported in pre-pandemic days to help get the word out in difficult-to-reach communities.

Regardless of the message, digital communicators learned how to juggle. The pandemic does not exist in a vacuum, and neither do our agencies. While most news focused on COVID-19, we still communicated about routine functions of government and what felt like a never-ending series of crises.

In darker moments, I no longer see the start of the pandemic as a transition to a new normal — instead I see the start of a permanent crisis driven by misinformation and division.

But, I also see cause for hope.

As we prepare to mark one year since the pandemic upended life in King County and the United States, I think back on how we as digital communicators worked through uncertainty, fear and doubt to churn out a stream of content, adapting to reflect new data about the virus and learning from missteps along the way.

Many of our agencies reached more people than ever during the last year. Some of us invested heavily in digital engagement for the first time. A lucky handful created viral moments to change the conversation. Issues related to abusedisinformation and misinformation on social media reached a wider audience and spurred overdue change.

When we finally leave March 2020 behind for good, I am confident we will put our skills to use in a world better educated about what we do and the value we bring to public service.

Meet the author
As digital engagement manager for King County, WA, in Seattle, Warren Kagarise leads the county’s efforts to connect with its 2.2 million residents via social media and other tools. Warren also represents the Northwest on the GSM Leadership Council. Prior to King County, he served as communications coordinator for the City of Issaquah, WA. During his tenure, Issaquah received national recognition for changing the city’s name to celebrate the Super Bowl and for a Sasquatch-themed tourism campaign. A former journalist, Warren lives in Seattle and spends his free time exploring the outdoors.

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