Mayors turn to ‘influencers’ to push social distancing message

From left to right: Burlesque performer Trixie Minx, artist PJ Morton, Chicago Sky’s Cheyenne Parker, Boston Bruins Captain Zdeno Chára, and Dr. Sara Aldahir are some of the influencers helping mayors communicate important information to citizens.

It’s one of the biggest communications challenges mayors face in the Covid-19 crisis: No matter how many press conferences they hold or media interviews they give, there are always some people in the community who will miss, ignore, or not believe what they’re saying about the importance of social distancing.

That’s why a number of local leaders are turning to celebrities, athletes, doctors, musicians, faith leaders, and others to deliver the message for them.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, for example, tapped stars from the city’s pro sports teams to shoot and share “We’re not playing” videos to encourage residents to stay home. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh is doing the same in his #RootingforBoston campaign.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is engaging local artists, rappers, doctors, pastors, rabbis, and burlesque performers to encourage residents to stay home, wash their hands, and keep their spirits up.

All of them are looking for new ways to connect with audiences they’re missing with more traditional outreach.

“We can get credible messengers, like sports athletes who can really reach sports fans but also young people in particular,” Lightfoot said when announcing Chicago’s campaign. “That’s why we’re activating this group of people.”

That’s Cantrell’s approach, too. “It was really difficult to get the information to certain communities, especially in the African-American community, when we thought misinformation was being spread that black Americans ‘can’t get’ the coronavirus,” Cantrell’s social media director, Eileen Carter, told Very Local New Orleans. “The mayor’s big thing is to meet people where they are: If I can get trusted information to you on your phone, then it’s just very helpful.”

In pursuing these influencer strategies, mayors are experimenting with workarounds to one of the frustrating truisms of crisis communications: Politicians aren’t always the best messengers. While having doctors or nurses by their side at press conferences reassures some and keeps the medical facts straight, mayors often need to do more to get key messages across.

“Press releases and press conferences alone are probably not going to be as effective as a broad-based communications campaign,” Dr. Joshua Sharfstein of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health told mayors at a recent coaching and learning session of the Coronavirus Local Response Initiative.

“What really changes people’s behavior is not always hearing from an authority figure,” he continued. “There should be multiple messengers who are credible within the population you are trying to reach. You need people who can translate your message — not just in the literal sense, but also in terms of relatability. Local faith communities and radio stations can help.”

The good news for public leaders is there’s no shortage of national and local celebrities willing to lend a hand right now. As part of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s #IStayHomeFor social media campaign, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez posted a video to Instagram that has been viewed more than 8 million times. California Governor Gavin Newsom tweeted a video from rapper Snoop Dogg encouraging Californians to “stay in the house so we can get this thing under control.”

Now, a new initiative called NOCOVID is aiming to help mayors bring that kind of star power to their own local messaging efforts. The effort is a pro bono collaboration of people connected to politicos James Carville and Mary Matalin and includes experts in public relations, academia, public affairs, behavioral science, and medicine, aimed at ensuring that critical public health messages reach the widest possible audience.

They’ve worked with celebrities like comedians Chris Rock and Wanda Sykes to produce stay-at-home videos for social media, and recently scored a viral hit with a gravel-throated message from Louisiana State University football coach Ed Orgeron in conversation with the team doctor. The group is eager to engage with mayors and other local leaders around targeting similar campaigns in Covid-19 hotspots. Doug Dicconson, CEO of Theorem Media and one of the leaders of the effort, said it’s important for mayors to make sure that “it’s not just people tuned into NPR” who are getting the message on social distancing.

“Compliance comes from the perfect combination of the message, the messenger, and the medium,” Dicconson said. He pointed to the football coach video as an example of a kind of campaign that can be “easily replicated at any scale or ZIP code” by tapping into respected coaches of local sports teams.

As part of the effort, Christopher Graves, President of the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science, produced a “local leader’s guide” to communicating social distancing to young people and others who may be inclined not to comply with local guidelines. Ogilvy P.R. experts also are ready to help mayors identify and recruit influencers in their communities and regions to the cause. (For inquires, send an email to Nocovid@theoremmedia.org.)

As social distancing shows signs of working, Dicconson said, mayors need to continue finding new ways to connect with residents around the need to keep up the good work. “Don’t give up now,” Dicconson said. “You have to run through the finish line.”

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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