COVID Impact: Washington D.C..

On March 30th, Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a stay-at-home order and D.C. ground to a halt: the Metro is now half-operational, federal employees are working from home, and restaurants and bars are closed to dine-in patrons. But how have the city’s stakeholders adapted? We examined how three D.C. institutions adjusted their communications in response to COVID-19. 1. DC Mayor’s Office – Over-Communicating in a Crisis Mayor Bowser, tasked with leading the charge against COVID-19, is in the midst of one of the defining moments of her political career. Not only is D.C. classified as a ‘territory’ rather than a ‘state’ in the $2 trillion relief bill passed into law (qualifying it for drastically less relief funds—$500 million to be exact), but D.C. has also been shortchanged on getting COVID-19 medical equipment. D.C. received no ventilators, safety goggles or hand sanitizer, and less than 1% of the requested gloves and masks. In contrast, Maryland received about a third of the items mentioned and 43% of the gloves requested. The Mayor’s office is deploying an arsenal of mass communication in response and is waging a public affairs campaign demanding that Congress allocate additional funds to D.C. For starters, her office has reached out to stakeholders and champions in Congress, held daily press briefings with public health and policy leaders, and publicly took to Twitter to express her frustrations and desires. While the fourth COVID-19 economic package is in its early stages, the Mayor’s efforts resulted in Speaker Pelosi and President Trump agreeing that more needs to be done for the more than 700,000 District residents. In a time like this, achieving that form of bipartisanship is a victory in itself. For a city that’s 68 square miles, the Mayor and her team are covering the ground well. 2. Local Papers and Editorial Boards – Timely Information The most visible newspaper in D.C. is The Washington Post. For nearly two months The Post has been imploring our nation’s elected officials, tech giants, and businesses to put partisanship and corporate priorities aside for the greater good. However, it took until last week for the Editorial Board to ask Washingtonians—and those in the surrounding Maryland and Virginia areas—to stay home. The Board wrote, “Whether this region turns into a New York-size medical bonfire rests largely on people following the orders to stay at home and practice physical distancing that can stop the chains of virus transmission. That means no more church services or bonfires, please.” While their focus on COVID-19 has been consistent, the Editorial Board’s focus on COVID-19’s regional impact has faded. As a result, publications like The Washingtonian and bloggers like PoPville have taken it upon themselves to serve their D.C. audiences during this time of need. Despite these two outlets not being direct competitors to a giant like The Washington Post that has an expansive brand, they do demonstrate that if you’re not controlling the message, deploying timely content, and providing a useful service to your audience, they will go somewhere else. Odds are that ‘somewhere’ is likely to your competitor. 3. Businesses – Hyper-Tailored Messaging An important backbone for many of D.C.’s communities are Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). The DC BID Council, an association of 11 districts, helps bring together community leaders, businesses, and stakeholders to work on issues affecting the entire city such as cleaning, safety, businesses growth, recruiting new businesses to their neighborhoods, organizing community events, addressing homelessness, and much more. BIDs have communicated their four COVID-19 pillars across their individual websites as well as on their social media channels. “1) Providing essential sanitation and other public space services; 2) getting assistance to businesses that will help them survive; 3) letting members and the general public know what services remain open and available; and 4) planning for recovery.” The hyper-targeted information and services available on each BID’s website is the type of tailored communications strategy we should applaud. BIDs understand that they’re here to serve various audiences, and they’re appropriately addressing each of their needs, concerns, and frustrations. By tailoring their messaging, and not using a one-size-fits-all approach, BIDs are empowering their communities during this difficult time. D.C.’s stakeholders and their response to COVID-19 can serve as a case study for other industries and verticals across the country. There are important lessons about communications and public affairs that can be translated to other states, audiences, and scenarios.


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