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Department of Homeland Security Shield / FEMA
Center for
Domestic Preparedness

Public Communication Concerns during Social Distancing

The Center for Domestic Preparedness has produced a podcast which tells public information officers and other responders how to safely and effectively communicate with their audiences while adhering to social distancing and other COVID-19 practices recommended by the CDC.

The six-minute production provides information about how to choose locations for and conduct in-person press conferences, as well as advice about how to run virtual press conferences, including choosing the right software program, how to present information on virtual meeting platforms, and how to manage questions from a pool of ‘virtual’ reporters. It also provides information about accommodating functional needs populations while planning media events.

The podcast features Candy Waylock, who is the lead instructor of the CDP’s Managing Public Information for All-Hazards Incidents Course. Waylock’s career spans nearly three decades and includes work as an award-winning journalist, media relations trainer, and communications strategist. She also served as the public information officer for the St. Louis, MO, Emergency Management Agency.

Waylock says responders have to continue to communicate with their audiences, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 environment.

“The public’s need for information during disasters and emergencies must be met – regardless of circumstances that may make it difficult,” she said.

Access the podcast via the player below.

The public’s need for information during disasters and emergencies must be met – regardless of circumstances that may make it difficult. Accurate information will drive better decision-making…and fewer inappropriate actions by the public. Calls into 911 may be reduced, trust in leadership will build, and rumors can be addressed and replaced with accurate information from officials.

The Media need for information is generally met through press releases, social media messaging and press conferences from officials and organizations. But remember….the audience for information is the PUBLIC – which is everyone in your community who can benefit from the information you provide. Media serves as the vehicle that officials can use to get their information to their community.

Public information officials should continue to send out press releases and social media messages – tweets, text, emails – on a regular basis, but reporters still need live action and one-on-one communication with leadership and other officials involved in the response to the situation.

When planning for an In-Person Press conference when Social Distancing Directives are in place, consider the following:

  • The available space you have for the press conference will dictate how many people can be in attendance. Plan for appropriate spacing for members of the media AS WELL as those designated to speak at the conference.
  • For Media in attendance – place chairs, appropriately distanced, and mandate reporters remain seated during the conference, and socially distance themselves while entering and exiting the room. Use current medical recommendations to determine if wellness checks must be conducted of all participants prior to entering the media room.
  • The number of available seats for media will also dictate the number of reporters allowed to attend in person. If some reporters are unable to attend because of space limitation, allow them access to the conference via live stream audio and video, or ask media to create a pool of reporters that will rotate with each briefing.
  • For press conference presenters, limit the number of officials at the press conference to ONLY those who need to be there… and who have information to share at that press conference. Speakers should also be appropriately spaced, with marks on the floor of the podium area where they should stand when not at the lectern. Instruct the speakers to avoid touching the lectern or the microphones while at the podium.
  • And always consider the members of your community with access and functional needs who may require additional resources to receive and understand the messages. These may include sign language interpreters, close captioning, and translation into commonly spoken languages in the community.

If traditional press conferences cannot be held because of social distancing or shelter in place directives, organizations must find other ways to accommodate the dissemination of public information.

If gathering in-person is not feasible, conduct virtual press conferences:

  • There are many web-based platforms currently being used for videoconferencing, remote learning, webinars and other online connections that could easily be adapted to host virtual press conferences. Choose the one that meets your organization’s needs, which is preferably already in use in your organization and proven secure, and is user-friendly. This may not be the time to orient people on a new platform if the organization is already using one that fits the needs.
  • Security precautions should be in place during the press conference to avoid unauthorized actions or people from disrupting the press conference. The organization must always keep control of the screen. Steps should include mandating journalists register and check in online prior to the event so your organization knows who is in attendance. You can use web-based software to send a digital invitation to your media contact list, providing one-time only access codes, passwords or pin numbers to limit “sharing” to others. Consider virtually locking the press conference once it has started to further limit disrupters.
  • If you are allowing questions from reporters – which media will expect during a press conference – give journalists chat capability or instant messaging options. This option also allows the press conference staff to “mute” comments, if necessary. If direct questions cannot be accommodated, questions may also be sent via text to communication staff to relay to presenters.
  • When documents, slides or other visual information is displayed during the press conference, use a desktop or screen sharing platform so that participants can reference these materials during the conference. Another option is to send the information directly to the media during or immediately following the conference, or place the materials on your organization’s website for download.

The benefits of a virtual press conference include minimizing health concerns and the need for social distancing. Reporters do not have to leave their homes or offices in order to attend, and available space is less a concern. Downsides to virtual press conferences can be technology glitches, unauthorized access, and difficulty in setting up an efficient protocol for allowing questions by reporters.

Additionally, with virtual conferences, media can get quotes and information, but there is no opportunity for photos and visuals. This limits television journalists and print photographers from getting the shots they need. Work with those individuals to try and accommodate their need for photographs and live action video.

With both in-person press conferences and virtual press conferences, the event should be recorded, transcribed and archived as quickly as possible to allow media not in attendance and the public to view and/or listen to the conference at a later time. The press conference may also be subject to Open Meeting and Open Records mandates, which reinforces the need to archive the event.

Remember…the information provided at press conferences – whether live or virtual – is intended primarily for the public. While the general public does not have the right to participate in the press conferences, they do have the right – and expectation - to hear what was said in real time…or soon after.

Planning for the possibility of in-person and remote press conferences should start well before the crisis occurs to ensure the needs of your whole community can be met. Meeting the information needs of the public and the media, during times of crisis, will go far in creating a trusting relationship between local officials, organizations and your community.