When a crisis hits, economic development organizations can function as both the voice of the business community to leaders and customers, as well as a reliable source of relevant information to help businesses make decisions in trying times.
IEDC has examined the role of EDO’s communication in disasters in Leadership in Times of Crisis: A Toolkit for Economic Recovery and Resiliency. Many of the suggestions shared in the Crisis Communication chapter hold true for organizations facing COVID-19. Ideally, prior to a disaster of any kind, EDOs should have a plan in place for emergency communications, which lays out which of potentially several local organizations will take the lead, and how leaders across government, non-profit, and private entities will coordinate.
Typically, when a disaster strikes, it is recommended that EDOs join other rapid responders together at an Emergency Operations Center or Business Recovery Center. In light of the contagious nature of the virus, this recommendation is ill-advised. Luckily, economic developers can join with their staff remotely to institute crisis communication protocols and assist in sustaining and rebuilding the business community as the crisis continues and, eventually, subsides.
Examples of Economic Development Organizations Managing COVID-19 Crisis Communications
The following examples show different types of economic development organizations addressing various communication needs related to the COVID-19 epidemic:
The tourism arm of the City of Stockton, CA has started a campaign to promote restaurants that are currently open and offering takeout. The campaign is aimed at both tourists who might visit Stockton in the future, and locals whose patronage will support these small businesses while they pivot into a new model. As part of the campaign, Visit Stockton features photos of mouth-watering local food on their main page, and provides a link to the campaign that asks patrons to tag #dinestockton on social media. This page also has an updated list of restaurants throughout the city featuring their hours, menus and delivery or pick up options.
Live Post: List of Resources
The Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance is speaking directly to their business community via a continuously updated post on their blog entitled, “Live Post: List of Resources for Businesses Impacted by COVID-19”. The post is organized chronologically, with the original post explaining the organization's response and plan to work remotely, followed by dated posts to the present moment featuring resources from the US Chamber of Commerce, the Center for Disease Control, the Nevada Health Response, and links to how to apply for SBA loans.
A static introduction at the top of the page explains that the post will be continually updated and that updates will be provided on social media with links to their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram feeds.
When EDOs need to rally their troops to make a case to state and federal leaders for enhanced funding, social media is an effective way to get the message out. For example, Lance Chimka, the Economic Development Director of Allegheny County used his personal LinkedIn page to communicate to businesses that more documented cases of business hardship would lead to an Economic Injury Declaration to be filed with the Small Business Administration to access relief funds. As shown in the screenshot below, this post was updated to let businesses know that the Declaration had been made and that relief would be forthcoming.
Important Steps to Implement Effective Crisis Communication
Economic development organizations can serve as a communicator to the business community and on their behalf, reaching out to customers and leaders. EDOs can facilitate communication in the following ways:
1. Connect Businesses to Customers
2. Connect Businesses to Resources
3. Connect Businesses to Leaders
Connect Businesses to Customers
Local commerce will suffer if customers do not continue to patronize businesses. Many small businesses are pivoting to accomodate the need for social distancing during this time; for example, restaurants and dining rooms are offering takeout menus or delivery.
Sandy Sponaugle, Economic Development Marketing Expert and CEO of Platinum PR makes the following suggestion in a separate post for Restore Your Economy:
“Your website should also include a page that informs the public about how they can support local businesses from the traditional retail perspective. For example: What businesses are offering carry-out? Who is selling gift cards? Help promote your local businesses’ current available options through your website and then share that information on social media.”
Social media is an important way to share this information. While working from home, employees may be spending more time on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Reminders about open businesses can prompt more interaction.
Connect Business to Resources
Businesses will need both financial and informational resources. Financial resources are likely to be top of mind; information about emergency sources of capital should be shared on all platforms, from social media posts to a special highlighted section of a website to emails to the business community. This includes information about loans or grants offered through an EDO or through state and federal agencies such as EDA. Businesses, particularly small businesses, need information on how to navigate local, state and federal government assistance programs, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA) technical and other sources of financial assistance such as a bridge loan for working capital.
Other resources that reduce the bottom line are helpful as well. National and local Internet providers are offering free hotspots, or providing free access to students and workers who are homebound. For example, providing information about how to connect to the Comcast Xfinity hotspot network would be a resource that cuts costs for small businesses.
Businesses will also need informational resources to make the best decisions about their future. With the large amount of media coverage around COVID-19, EDOs should strive to pass on information that is accurate, fact-checked, and from reputable sources. For example, sharing resources from the Center for Disease Control, and other state and federal agencies, as well as local government and disaster response agencies such as the Red Cross can provide accurate information.
Connect Business to Leaders
The Leadership in Times of Crisis Toolkit advises, “Understand the need to work with all local partners to persuade decision-makers at the local, state and federal level of any needed additional resources to meet local business needs.”
So far, in terms of the early response to COVID-19, this has meant that economic developers are seeking stories and testimonials from businesses to convey the impact of mandatory closures and social distancing. Documented cases of economic hardship lead to state and federal resources being accessed, such as the Small Business Administration Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.
EDOs can also serve as voice of business as policies are designed to rebuild economies. One important step that EDOs can take to tell the story of how businesses have suffered is to use a post-disaster economic impact analysis. An independent, third-party assessment of the disaster’s economic consequences will support the community’s efforts to secure resources from state and federal governments. For more information, see the chapter in this toolkit on conducting a post-disaster economic impact study.
Methods of Communication
Different methods of communication have different audiences and different modes or tones that are better suited to the medium. For example, because websites are more static, they are a better option for information that does not change, such as how to apply for loans. More dynamic information such as business closings or changes can be shared on social media.
• EDO websites should be used for static information that does not change including how to apply for loans and grants, who to contact for immediate assistance, and local, state, and national resources. They can also be used for long term campaigns such as #dinestockton, featured above.
• Facebook and Instagram are good platforms for sharing up-to-date information about business status and offerings. Note that updates to this service do not prioritize chronological posting. Make sure to indicate time and date of post.
These platforms are also important for small businesses to keep up to date. Loyal customers will often support via reposting the news that a vital or beloved local business is open again, even in a limited capacity. In order to be effective, however, this strategy depends on businesses establishing social media accounts and audience prior to any crisis.
• Twitter is appropriate for sharing news or press releases. Monitor Twitter for trends related to your community, and be aware that while tweets are up to the minute, they are not always reliable.
• LinkedIn is an appropriate space to address your business community and explain how they can become involved.
• Yelp is an app often used to locate retail businesses and learn about the public’s reviews of the service or product. Businesses can use this service to let customers know about changes in hours or offerings.
Setting up a text messaging service is a good way to communicate with the public. These services will often be used by institutions such as universities, to communicate important updates. New York City offers an opt-in service called Notify NYC. EDOs can check to see if their local governments offer a service and if business related communication can be shared on this platform.