For Effective Communications in the Time of COVID, Aim Local

The House of Representatives recently approved a measure allowing members to vote remotely or by proxy and to hold formal hearings by video conference. For Congress, this procedural change means that lawmakers will be spending a lot less time in Washington. For the rest of us, it means the local media landscape has become more important than ever when it comes to communicating with legislators and influencing policy outcomes.

Lawmakers have long relied on local news to identify the needs of constituents and communicate their priorities back to their communities. But as our leaders spend even more time in-district than ever before, plugging into the local feedback loop is critical to ensure organizations’ voices are part of the conversation.

The importance of local media isn’t new: Last year, Pew Research Center found that 73 percent of Americans follow local news at least somewhat closely. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, that number has certainly gone up as stay-at-home orders, business and school closures, and an overall increased need for localized information has skyrocketed.

As the mainstream media claws to stay up-to-date on the latest breaking news, national outlets are often forced to just scratch the surface on important issues in order to stay ahead of the rapidly changing news cycle. Local news, on the other hand, has more capacity and more inclination to tell the stories that matter most to real people in real communities and they often cause frequent sharing on social media.

Coverage of companies doing good in the communities they serve, nonprofits rising to the challenge and even of individuals doing what they can to make a difference have been bright spots of hope during the COVID-19 crisis — and with more and more people tuning in, they have become mainstays of the collective awareness. Local coverage has also conveyed the real-world impacts of national economic and health care policies like stimulus packages or face mask guidance to people at the community and individual level.

As states and communities begin to open again, local news media is just beginning to tell the stories of small businesses concerned about liability guidelines to protect themselves as employees and consumers express anxiety about safely re-engaging in their normal daily activities. These are the kinds of pieces that make policy issues relatable to everyday Americans, giving them the opening to provide feedback to their legislators.

With the pandemic continuing to impact our lives, the local media is more important than ever, especially when it comes to the legislators who rely on it to inform their policy decisions. Organizations eager to make policy impacts will be wise to prioritize breaking into this coverage by leveraging what is happening in districts, then coupling these stories with targeted social media to impact lawmakers where they are — and where they are likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

Re-evaluating your public relations strategy and reallocating resources to account for this changing environment will set organizations apart as they seek to advance their policy agenda. So much of our organizations’ work has changed in the past few months, and while it feels we have precious little control over these changes, our communications strategies are one of the few areas where we can respond to the crisis with agility. By approaching the new media and legislative environment as an opportunity to engage with our leaders where they are, smart companies will have an outsized impact on the policies that matter most to them.

Ron Bonjean, a public affairs and crisis management expert, is a partner of the bipartisan public affairs firm ROKK Solutions and previously served as the lead spokesman for both the House and the Senate, as well as the communications strategist for then-Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch. 

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