The impact of the coronavirus has dramatically changed everyone’s day-to-day lives in a short period of time. The job of informing employees and the public about how the City’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak is the responsibility of the City’s Communications and Marketing (C&M) Department.
“Since early March, we’ve met with the City’s management team almost every day, sometimes several times a day,” says Communications and Marketing Department Director Mary Elliott. “When communicating about the coronavirus with the City’s employees or with residents, our goal is to provide clear, consistent and frequent information.”
Working closely with City management, C&M has crafted messages for employees and the public about the City’s response to the coronavirus, and then provided that information through emails, news releases, social media, videos, City News Source and the City’s website.
“We are a full-service department,” Elliott says. “We don’t just do one thing. We offer full service. We are the experts on communication strategy and the implementation of it.” She leads a three-person department which includes Public Information Specialist Donna Lahser and Communications Specialist Sharon Foote.
Communications and Marketing
Last October’s FUSE groundbreaking provides another example of C&M’s full-service approach. A partial list of the department’s work for the event includes news releases, more than two dozen social media posts, a video, advertisements, designing and ordering commemorative baseball bats for the mayor and city council, designing and ordering sports-themed stress balls given to the public, and working with reporters before and during the event.
In addition, Lahser notes that the department also creates brochures, flyers, website pages and Blackboard messages, takes photographs and shoots videos. Foote adds, “Those are the tangible tactics that people see. Behind the tactics is the strategic process – planning, research, knowledge, understanding how people think and how the different communication methods work.”
In that strategic process, the communications aspect focuses primarily on facts. The marketing aspect can involve feelings. Both are important parts of what the department does. “That’s why we’re Communications and Marketing,” Elliott says. It’s not just about providing public information. It’s also about understanding how we attract people to come here.”
The department works to educate the public about the many programs and services provided by the City of Gastonia. It also builds awareness of and support for the City’s capital projects, from the FUSE stadium to the renovated water plant. The department promotes Gastonia to help attract new businesses and encourage economic growth. And it provides the City government’s official “voice,” shaping and sharing the City’s official messages with news reporters and the public.
The increasing importance of City communications
The Communications and Marketing Department was formed in 2017. As recently as three years ago, one City employee handled nearly all communications and media relations for the City, plus promoted Gastonia’s downtown revitalization efforts. At that time, Lahser worked at the Gastonia Police Department, responsible for GPD’s media relations, social media and public information.
In 2020, Lahser still manages external communications for Police while working on a range of education and outreach projects for the City as a whole. Foote is in charge of the City’s social media accounts and the Employee Focus newsletter, and works on communications projects and initiatives for various departments. Downtown revitalization efforts are now under Economic Development, which also became a City department in 2017.
The changes have allowed the Communications and Marketing Department to expand its services and meet the rapidly changing communication needs of City departments and the public. Many goals and objectives for City departments, which are listed in the Strategic Plan, need to be communicated to the public or specific audiences. That task is often the responsibility of Communications and Marketing.
“With personal computers and smartphones, people get information from a wide range of sources,” Foote says. “It's no longer possible to get our message out to the entire city by sending a news release that results in one story in the local newspaper.” She says websites and social media give the City direct access to the public, but creating, posting and updating the content requires continuous effort.
In addition to written words, today’s audiences expect interesting photos and videos. They want to be entertained and inspired, not just informed. And on social media, people want to engage. Social media is interactive, meaning it’s an ongoing two-way conversation with the public. The City uses platforms like Facebook and Twitter to provide messages. Just as important, C&M employees monitor the public’s responses, taking note as social media followers click “like,” “love,” or even “angry,” and make comments about the City’s posts. In the last full week of March, as the City posted information about Stay at Home orders and other COVID-19 updates, the number of people going to the City’s Facebook page increased 170% from the previous week.
In recent decades, the communications profession has become more complex. It takes more strategy and effort to reach and influence the City’s intended audiences – and their hearts and minds. Understanding the ever-changing complexities helps C&M to serve as a communications consultant to other City departments. “We are here to help our customers meet their goals,” Elliott says. “It’s not just saying, ‘Here’s that brochure you wanted,’ but, ‘How else can we help you, strategically, so you can meet your goals for your department?’”
On American Airlines flights, seat pockets contain American Way magazine with an advertisement for the City of Gastonia that will be seen by 7 million people. The ad was developed by Communications and Marketing. The department is also creating ads to promote Gastonia’s Downtown. Promoting the City and its amenities to local and global audiences is part of the department’s marketing efforts.
All three employees say a favorite part of their job is the opportunity to be creative. For Elliott, it’s the opportunity to “create the image we want for the City.” Lahser says writing news releases, creating social media posts, shooting and editing video, and learning new things are part of what she calls the “endless creativity” of her job.
But rarely is there time for creative daydreaming or getting lost in an adrenaline rush of creative juices. Communications and Marketing employees work on many projects at once, often with tight deadlines. “I could be working on a longer-term project and suddenly need to respond to reporters because of a jackknifed 18-wheeler,” Lahser says. “We don’t want to drop any balls, but we often are pulled in different directions.”
Along with meeting demands, Elliott says another challenge that requires creativity is managing expectations. Many of the department’s projects are designed to be visible to the public, which can invite critique or even criticism. Sometimes, the City’s outreach efforts are compared to those of other city governments or even private companies that have a large web team, a video team, a social media team, or an entire division dedicated to internal communications. “We have to manage expectations and manage our resources,” Elliott says. “That requires thinking outside of the box to come up with the best solutions. With years of communications experience under our belts, we can usually meet our customers’ expectations.”
Elliott says she is grateful that her department reports directly to the City Manager. “Many times, the communications department is buried inside the organizational chart,” she says. “That waters down the department’s credibility and ability to get things done.” Reporting directly to the City Manager and being able to coordinate messages with the City’s management team has been extremely important to C&M as it communicates the surge of ever-changing coronavirus pandemic information to employees and the public.
Whether it’s crisis communication or a community celebration, the Communications and Marketing Department helps tell Gastonia’s story, informing minds and influencing hearts of people who want to learn more about our great place, our great people and our great promise.