Innovator’s Journey: Thomas Reeves & Crisis Communication

The Alliance for Innovation spoke with Thomas Reeves, Communications & Media Relations Officer for the City of Modesto, CA about how to communicate during a crisis.

ARTICLE | Apr 8, 2020
Thomas Reeves, City of Modesto

AFI: Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, did you have a crisis communications plan?

Thomas Reeves: Well, we did. It's quite old, and what we found is that it should have been updated sooner. We’re in an interesting situation because just like many cities across the nation, the County actually has the lead role in performing many of the emergency functions. They hold the standard emergency operations plan. Our County's plan was last updated in 2010, and we are now part of the emergency operations center responding to this COVID-19 virus.

With this, we realized that we also needed to operate on our own and have developed plans on the fly. So, part of realizing that we were a little outdated, was that we needed to update these plans in real time.

AFI: As you're developing this plan, do you feel as if you're just going phase by phase? Or was there some kind of basis that you began with?

Thomas Reeves: We have a solid communication plan that was developed to identify opportunities and tools that we have at our disposal for just general communications to the public and to our employees. Really, we're using that plan as a launching pad for crisis communication. Utilizing the same tools and methods that we use on a daily basis, just realizing that we need to do more of it.

“For the crisis communication element, it's really taking what we have and injecting steroids into it, so to speak, so that we are just operating more effectively and efficiently.”

AFI: I think about the initial outbreak and how fast it escalated, especially in California. What was the first piece of communication that you put out there to the public?

Thomas Reeves: Our first public message went on our website. We felt like it was important to at least show on our homepage of the website that we were aware of this issue, we were on top of it, we were activating and researching the best methods of keeping our public safe and healthy. We were simply telling people, "Here's how you can generally stay healthy in this time of flu season." We worked on an email for our city's safety officers that could be sent to our 1,500 employees. And, again, it was still very much devoted to the very simple messages of washing your hands and say home if you're sick.

A couple of days later we worked on a message from the City Manager, and the tone was very middle of the road. We don't want to overreact, nor do we want to under react to this issue. And, in fact, I used those words, "Beating this flu season," instead of even naming COVID-19 since it was still so new. We were still very much trying to juggle daily life and communication about this issue.

AFI: Is there any real difference in tone between the City Manager’s communications and the Mayors?

Thomas Reeves: The reality is that we, like many jurisdictions, have elections coming up where the Mayor's or City Council member seats will be decided. We are seeing, especially in Modesto, that the Mayor is taking a very active role in the daily news that goes out. Wanting to be on video more, wanting to have a statement more often, wanting to be kind of that lead face and voice of the city.

So, I think there's a way for the mayor's message to be more of hope and encouragement, and I can assure my public that City leadership is paying attention, and we have answers to the extent that we've been able to muster. And then, the City Manager can take more of the tone of authoritarian in terms of here's what we're doing, this is the decision that's been made, here's how we're closing, or when we're closing and why.

AFI: With so many messages coming your way from the State, County, and City leadership, how do you filter those and determine your message to the public?

Thomas Reeves: I have to take a lot of my cues from the public and balance the needs and desires of not only the elected officials, but also of the messages City leadership wants to get out. But then, also be very aware and sensitive to what the public has an appetite for. And in this time of overload, in terms of messaging, about this one issue, I have to be very realistic with my team here about what is palatable and what we should be communicating.

AFI: Is there anything that you've done, any tactic that you've tried that's been unusual for you, or unique to previous communications?

Thomas Reeves: We have had more of an emphasis on the hard to reach population. We are a community where a quarter of our residents speak Spanish as their primary language. Now more than ever is a chance for us to really make sure that we are communicating in other languages besides English. The use of video and the use of translation are two things that are fairly new to us. It’s absolutely critical for us to ensure that we find translators and have translators at the ready.

AFI:  It’s no secret that local governments sometimes have a rocky relationship with local media. And so, whether you do or don't in Modesto, have you found that you've been more collaborative during the crisis with the local media?

Thomas Reeves: I think we've been more collaborative because we have found that it's okay if the media is one of the sources that people get their doom and gloom messages from. I think there's always going to be a place for a media source to simply give out the bad news – here are the number of cases, number of deaths, how it’s spreading, etc. As long as they're getting it right, then the City can take on the role of being more comforting in terms of here's how we're going to get you through it. So we have been able to collaborate off of one another and really help get those messages out.

AFI: Do you have a piece of advice for someone that is new to this field or this role on how to kind of stay calm, how to be responsive, how to filter information?

Thomas Reeves: I think first and foremost, it's important that the lead communicator in a crisis is identified and that all power in creating, approving and getting the message out is with this lead communicator. It's important to know who that is and to be closely aligned with that person.

If it's you and it’s a new role for you, then you need to embrace it and you need to be the expert. Follow your training, follow your experience, follow your education. And be that authority, and provide the strategy with passion, with strength. Don’t waiver from it and don't let anybody else tell you that you are wrong.

Want to hear even more of Thomas' interview? Tune into the AFI Innovator's Journey podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Spotify.

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