Cora Scott, Public Information and Civic Engagement, City of Springfield.
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Cora Scott, Director of Public Information and Civic Engagement, City of Springfield, Busch Municipal Building, 840 Boonville Avenue, Springfield, MO 65802. Phone: (417) 864-1009. E-mail: email@example.com
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the future feels difficult and uncertain, and few of us have much control over it, beyond doing our best to keep ourselves informed and those around us safe. The result is a lot of unhappy people. Gallup survey data have shown that pessimism about the future of the pandemic in the United States is rising and is infecting the general outlook of most Americans. This article describes how one local government and health department communicated successfully during the pandemic—and even increased community engagement—by encouraging a sense of community ownership.
On March 13, 2020, I received a text message from my friend and colleague Lisa Cox. Lisa and I had worked together at Mercy Hospital in the aftermath of the Joplin, Missouri, tornado, and I later convinced her to join me at the City of Springfield, where she had served as the public affairs officer for the Springfield Police Department for several years. I was in Branson on a rare day off, shopping with my husband and daughter, when her text came in.
“Here we go,” Lisa texted. As the chief communications officer for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, she was notifying me of the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Greene County.
It seemed totally unfair that it had happened so quickly, but though I felt anxiety about the events that were seemingly predestined to follow, I did not panic. Only 7 days prior, the Springfield-Greene County Health Department had convened its first multidisciplinary, multi-organizational taskforce meeting. Having spent 18 years at Mercy Hospital communicating about important health issues, including the H1N1 virus, and nearly 8 years communicating on behalf of the City of Springfield, I felt a sense of comfort knowing the players, understanding the medical science, and believing that there was no other county health department in the United States that I trusted more than the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.
Lisa’s follow-up text perplexed me, though: “It’s like the Joplin tornado is hitting us again, but every. single. day.” I thought, “What has happened to Lisa? Why is she being so dramatic? Together, we had helped our communities come to grips with, and ultimately heal from, many tragedies, and we did so by remaining calm, being straightforward, honest, and empathetic. This would surely be just another one of those times.” It would be several weeks before I could understand Lisa’s comments and grasp that this was and is nothing like any of those previous times. At the heart of it, for me, was teaching others that a pandemic is not only a medical crisis, but also a communications emergency.
Since March 2020, the City of Springfield, for which I serve as the director of public information and civic engagement, and the Springfield-Greene County Health Department have made communication a priority in every sense of the word. Yet, I am not going to lie: It has been difficult. The fight against misinformation has felt personal to me. If I am not doing everything I possibly can to inform and educate citizens, I feel like I am putting their lives at risk. That is the heaviness of it. Janet Dankert, CEO of Community Partnership of the Ozarks, cried with me on the phone one night, terrified that a lack of funding would put highly vulnerable homeless people back on the streets, with little protection from COVID-19. Hers is the heart of a nonprofit leader—a community leader.
From hosting more than 100 live news briefings, to facilitating dozens of heated public City Council hearings, to broadcasting four virtual town hall television specials, my communication team at the City of Springfield and I have been front and center during the biggest public health crisis of our time.
Admittedly, I am an emotional person, but I do not think I, or any of us, should feel ashamed of that. In fact, I think we should embrace it. These days, emotion is oftentimes in short supply, and the last thing we need are leaders who cannot feel. In a crisis, the importance of acknowledging emotions caused by uncertainty cannot be overstated. While decision making is based on a consideration of facts and a thorough analysis of consequences, communication must occur with an understanding of the impact of decisions.
Despite the high level of fear associated with the pandemic—and the very real concerns about the future—I believe that the default position we should communicate is realistic optimism. This is the tone I have tried to strike in all of my communication work throughout this crisis. As Arthur Brooks described in The Atlantic, “Humans like to feel optimistic about, and in control of, where life is headed. The pandemic has made it very hard to feel that way.”
Nonprofit organizations, local governments, and service providers in general (both public and private) are entrusted with protecting the collective soul of communities. Across the nation, communities are struggling not just to survive the COVID-19 outbreak, but to look optimistically at possible changes that could permanently alter the world as we know it for the better. Nonprofits, municipalities, and service providers fulfill life-saving functions, but unfortunately they are faced with shrinking revenues, increasing demand, staff cutbacks, the fog of uncertainty, and the added trauma of the negative impact of short- and long-term social isolation on the people they serve.
Because of the pandemic, the future feels difficult and uncertain, and few of us have much control over it, beyond doing our best to keep ourselves informed and those around us safe. The result is a lot of unhappy people. Gallup survey data have shown that pessimism about the future of the pandemic in the United States is rising and is infecting our general outlook.
Yet, there is a silver lining. As David Brooks of the New York Times reminds us, “This is a time to practice aggressive friendship with each other—to be the one who seeks out the lonely and the troubled.” It is also true that character is revealed at times like this. People look deeper into themselves, learning bravely what pain can teach us. Hopefully, through the stoic response to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the long-needed response to the devastating pandemic of systemic racism, we will all become wiser and more compassionate as a result.
Going into the pandemic, I knew that trust had already been eroding: trust of institutions—governmental, religious, educational—and the media. We have even become more distrustful of one another, a major problem that has led to confusion and division, making coalition building and positive change extremely difficult. One answer lies within increased civic engagement because when people are engaged, they feel more ownership of their community—which is key to community partnership. In southwest Missouri, we are known for collaboration and for having a very strong level of bonding social capital, but what about bridging social capital? Community leaders tried to continue focusing on how to improve our relationships with those who are very different from us and building trust among us in a way that helps prepare people for months to come.
I was shell-shocked to learn in a recent meeting that, for some, unity has become a trigger word. As a communicator, I pride myself on my careful use and placement of words because, despite what some say to the contrary, words matter. Thankfully, the friend and colleague who shared the latter sentiment was willing to unpack their thoughts for me: “The word unity can be misused and speaks loudly to me that there is a nuance telling me I must compromise my political values and cross lines that my religious beliefs and ethos simply cannot accept.” I had never thought of it that way. “That’s not what we mean by unity,” several people in a recent community conversation responded. This was an eye-opening moment to say the least, and it reminded me of another important piece of advice, so simple that many of us forget it: Listen first, speak later. By listening to this comment, the misunderstanding suddenly became clear, offering me insight for future coalition building.
I believe there are certain actions that will help all of us build trust: telling the truth; trusting the local media; connecting in news ways that build community ownership; and keeping showing up.
Tell the Truth
When faced with a crisis, we have two options: We can offer false reassurance, draw hard lines, and scold one another for believing one way or the other, hoping that reality does not prove us wrong down the road; or we can prepare ourselves and one another for an uncertain future with candor, empathy, humility, and honesty. Through the latter option, I believe we can earn back trust.
In my communications work addressing not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the interrelated pandemics of systemic racism, economic distress, and impending mental health crisis, I am part of a team that comprises multiple City of Springfield departments and disciplines, including my Department of Public Information and Civic Engagement, the Health Department, the Police Department, the Planning Department, the Office of Emergency Management, and the office of the Mayor. The team also has a very close partnership with the local hospital systems, mental health providers, secondary and higher education institutions, faith-based organizations, the business community, and, of course, the nonprofit social services sector.
A main tenet of our communications strategy has been telling the truth—and telling it often—across multiple platforms in many different ways. Providing access to accurate information has been an obsession of ours. The national stage scared me to death, so initially I tuned it out, focusing on what local and regional experts, whom I knew personally, had to say and needed to share—a health department I had trusted my entire life and doctors I have worked with for decades. I knew that they depended on reliable sources for information on which to base decisions. I felt I could take that information to the bank—and to the public.
Our former county director of public health, Clay Goddard, and current acting director of health Katie Towns have become reluctant high-profile public figures during the pandemic and continues to be an important voice in our region.
I think the single most common crisis-communication mistake is issuing overly reassuring messages. For fearful people, especially those whose fear pushed them into denial, Clay struck the right tone, somewhere between gentle and matter-of-fact: scary realities presented without scary theatrics. Although this approach is not universally accepted, it almost universally works. This may seem to contradict my earlier advice to default to optimism, but remember: We are going for a realistic optimism. Some believe that bad news should be downplayed. I disagree. Telling bad news does not always mean one’s organization or community will be perceived negatively. Leveling with the public offers strength for recruiting help and building trust and coalitions.
Trust the Local Media
In Springfield, we have a great local news corps, and the local media have been an absolute godsend. Having a relationship with them for over 30 years continues to pay off for me and for the efforts of the City and Health Department. My advice is, Do not wait until there is a crisis to develop relationships with anyone. There is truth to the contention that our media habits and the response by national media outlets to address our insatiable need for instant gratification and entertaining news have contributed to our divisive culture. However, there has been no more important time than right now for us to seek out and support unbiased and reliable journalism.
Drury University professor Dr. Jonathan Groves defined media literacy as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and act using all forms of communication. Now more than ever, media literacy is so incredibly important. People are generally confused by and get lost within the divide between fact and fiction. This threatens our democracy. The Institute for Media and Public Trust (https://www.fresnostate.edu/artshum/mcj/media-public-trust/) at California State University, Fresno, is a solid informational resource dedicated to finding solutions to the “fake news” crisis and helping to bridge the trust gap between news consumers and media outlets.
I have spent a fair amount of time correcting misinformation online and pointing people to known objective media sources related to COVID-19 and systemic racism. Of course, I hope my efforts are helpful, but I warn others that standing up to this phenomenon is not for the faint of heart. I have received complaints and at least one anonymous letter (written to my boss) questioning my integrity and threatening me for simply pointing out objective news sources and answering people’s questions with facts. I believe this hostility stems from an insidious information virus to which we are all susceptible: confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the inclination to digest information and news that already fits into one’s current point of view, reinforcing attitudes and beliefs that one already has, at the exclusion of open-mindedness.
Early on in this crisis, Clay emphasized that we are all in this for the long haul, that the pandemic, or its impacts, would not be over by the end of the summer, the end of the fall, or even the end of the year. These words were very difficult to hear back in March 2020, when we had to issue stay-at-home orders to help slow the spread of the virus and buy time for area hospitals to scale up. Yet, it was the truth—the hard truth, based on sound medical science.
In our briefings, the communications team reported warnings about the likely long duration of the pandemic because our public deserved the truth. This reminded me of a historical situation: In 1942, just after the British defeated the Germans at Alamein, driving them out of Egypt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said famously, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
At that time, we were beginning to realize that there was a way to combat the virus. We were gaining a little more clarity. We knew what we were fighting: a deadly virus and misinformation, both of which could cause illness and death. The public does not need fearless leaders; it needs role models of leaders bearing their own fear. People can handle the truth, and they deserve it. Leaders get criticized no matter what they do. In my experience, however, people also rise to the occasion to meet expectations when calls to action are clear and they serve the common good.
When the communications team elicited empathy from viewers (on social media and through mainstream media), appealing to their sense of community, we noticed this also shored up support for compliance with necessary safety regulations. Hearing stories directly from people via testimonials about their loved ones elicited the most empathy. These were stories of people whose loved ones had suffered or died from COVID-19 and also stories about interviewees themselves who has contracted and fought the virus.
Connect and Engage People in New Ways That Build Community Ownership
People crave connectivity more than ever, perhaps because we have been forced into at least partial isolation, with the traditions around gathering that we have come to love stripped from us because they are now a potential source of sickness. I hope we are truly realizing the pain of social isolation, particularly for senior citizens, who are too often forgotten and devalued.
The communications team created weekly opportunities to interact and engage with us virtually and went to extreme lengths to advertise these opportunities. This included working with the media to promote programs, producing public service announcements in multiple formats, and leaving information packets on residents’ doorsteps. At the heart of our messaging was a call to action to do the right thing, be part of the greater good, and own our community. Despite the chaos at the federal and state level, we believed rightly that we control our own destinies. We received help at every turn from people who “owned” their community and were subsequently more invested. That helped to build resiliency—a fortress of fortitude.
It really is up to all of us to come together and make a conscious decision to be resilient together. Central to this are creativity and flexibility. For example, I do not think any of us would be as videoconference-savvy if we were not forced to rethink how we can do things to involve more people across technology platforms. This constraint also showed us how difficult it can be for people with disabilities to fully participate in our community.
I am the proud co-creator of the Give 5 Civic Matchmaking program with Greg Burris, president and CEO of United Way of the Ozarks and former Springfield city manager. Pre-pandemic, we realized the extreme level of social isolation right here in our community. We went virtual in the fall of 2020 and were not surprised that so many people have wanted to connect with volunteer opportunities—just safe and socially distanced ones. During the pandemic, we were able to reach out to our Give 5 graduates, specifically querying our database of alums, finding those who had medical, public relations, or call center experience. Indeed, the alumni made for very good call center operators.
Keep Showing Up
We live in a world where technology can connect us in the blink of an eye, and yet, too often, we do not see. Despite having more ways than ever to hear one another, we too often do not listen. Without seeing and hearing one another, it is hard to build trust, and without trust, it is easy to retreat to our bubbles or tribes: us versus them; red versus blue; men versus women; church versus state. Instead, we should unite in the truest sense of the word: come or bring together for a common purpose or action.
In this social-media era of TikTok, Snapchat, and “fake news,” the work of addressing our multiple pandemics is difficult, with few immediate improvements. Moreover, as David Brooks aptly described, it is all boring, dogged work that is more C-Span than Instagram. It is about building relationships and helping everyone understand that, although it sounds clichéd, we really are all in this together. Our individual actions, or inactions, affect the trajectory of the virus’s spread. It is a reality that is both inspiring and frightening. A fundamental tenet is that any successful communication regarding the virus must ignite feelings of community ownership. This became increasingly difficult, however, as national rhetoric claimed the virus was a “hoax,” stoking fear across the country.
Yet, life is sometimes mysterious and full of pleasant surprises. Throughout the craziness of the pandemic, there has been one constant in my life: a man named Erik Richards. He is one of the City of Springfield and the Springfield-Greene County Health Department’s most vocal critics, mostly because of our masking requirements. It is no exaggeration to say that, over the previous 9 months, I would go to bed each night after reading angry messages from Erik and wake up to them again the next morning. He posed a lot of questions that I think we faithfully answered to the best of our ability.
Then something happened. He read a newspaper story about the death of former Springfield city councilman Tommy Bieker. The newspaper account shared that Tommy had reached out to me in July, wanting to help create awareness about the importance of masking and social distancing. Tommy did not think that the issue of masking should be political and believed that it might be helpful to show how someone like him, a self-described staunch conservative, could support a masking requirement. We were not able to finish the PSA we had started working on together because he began losing his battle with leukemia. However, in the days before his passing, he felt such a strong sense of ownership of his community that he texted me again, apologizing for not finishing the PSA and sharing his love for the community. He remembered the good times he and I had together and asked me to share his wish:
(1) I ask everyone to #maskup417 and (2) love each other, it’s the little things that count and finally, (3) we are literally the best community ever and you are what makes it great.
Love you Cora, going to miss the hell outta the team!!
I did share Tommy’s final message with the community he loved.
Erik said he and Tommy had similar views on politics, and although they did not know each other, they had gone to high school together. When he learned that Tommy had tragically died and read in the news report about his wish for everyone to mask up, Erik thought there was no better way to honor him than to do something so easy as to put on a mask (“even if I disagree or do not like it”). So, he started thinking and talking to his wife. “Honey, what do you think about us masking up for 100 days.” She was stunned. “I tried to take down all the anti-mask crap and changed,” said Erik. “Had I not seen that story on Tommy, then I probably would not have tried to change.”
Erik hopes this challenge will take off like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, with people agreeing to mask up for 100 days and to nominate 15 people they think will mask up, too. His challenge became #MaskUpForTommy.
Erik still does not agree with the City of Springfield’s passage of an ordinance requiring masking, and he is worried about backlash from other anti-maskers, which started immediately and was just as hateful as his own earlier posts. He has apologized profusely, and I believe he is sincere. His connection to Tommy and his remorse that his actions could possibly have hurt others and our community at large led him to embrace a sense of ownership and responsibility. He now believes that it is important for all of us to come together, despite our differences of opinion. He has done a 180, saying he now sees the bigger picture and wants to do something to help his community and fellow citizens, despite his own discomfort and personal objections. I am 100% sure that this is exactly the kind of thing that Tommy Bieker would have wanted to happen—and that makes Erik Richards very happy.
- Brooks, A. (2020, September 24). What to do when the future feels hopeless. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/09/what-do-when-future-feels-hopeless/616448 ↑
- https://news.gallup.com/poll/313415/assessment-covid-situation-increasingly-bleak.aspx ↑
- Brooks, D. (2020, April 9). The pandemic of fear and agony. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/09/opinion/covid-anxiety.html ↑
- Brooks, D. (2020, June 25). America is facing 5 epic crises all at once. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/25/opinion/us-coronavirus-protests.html ↑
Cora Scott is the Director of Public Information & Civic Engagement for the City of Springfield. She leads a 12-person creative staff in designing and implementing strategic communication and civic engagement strategies for the wide-ranging services of the City of Springfield – including City Council activities and departments, such as Planning & Development, Police, Fire, Public Works and Building Development.
Cora serves as the chief communicator for all City operations, overseeing crisis communication responses and also designing, developing, and implementing civic engagement strategies and programs to increase citizen participation with, and ultimately trust in, City government.
Her proactive work with community leaders and organizations to build social capital has led to successful increases in positive engagement between citizens and their local government. Cora and her team of creative communicators work with social and private sector partners to co-creates meaningful public education and awareness of key issues.
Cora joined the City in 2012, after serving 18 years in similar roles at Mercy, a St. Louis-based integrated health system.