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14 April 2020

COVID-19: How local, state and federal governments can use SMS to communicate with their communities  

As COVID-19 continues to shake up the world, getting the right information to your communities has rapidly become a fight for government authorities. Rife misinformation, contradictory directives and unpredictable day-to-day changes has forced many of those within the public sector to seek new communication strategies to tackle these issues.

We’ve put together the first in our series of COVID coffee webinars on how industry-specific segments such as local government, MPs and not-for-profits can better resolve communication issues. Presented by our in-house experts at MessageMedia, including Senior Product Manager Rachael Hooper-Sand and Product Manager Julian Choquette, this webinar will specifically tackle:

  • Best practice examples we’re seeing from government departments
  • Getting started with your own SMS messaging
  • More resources to help your organisation get ahead of this crisis

Watch our Coffee webinar on Communications for local government below:

Watch our Coffee Webinar on Communications for members of government below:

COVID-19 text messaging trends from public authorities

There’s no way we can completely predict what the full implications of the pandemic mean for your constituents as well as for your organisation. It will vary dramatically depending on your community as well as your territory. There’s no doubt that differing levels of government will have different needs. For example, Australia’s local government such as the City of Casey will have extremely different priorities as compared to a UK regional establishment like the Greater Manchester Combined Authority. And, of course, we cannot neglect that COVID itself adds new problems and unforeseen communications challenges too.

What we do know is that SMS is versatile in how it can help businesses and public authorities reach and guide resident and communities to get the support and information that they need. Our recent partnership with government engagement tech provider Bang the Table assists in alleviating challenges the public sector was already facing – a disengaged public, and no easy nor accessible way for citizens, especially vulnerable ones, to join in. By utilising the 2-way conversational function that SMS messaging offers, authorities can now reach an even greater breadth of stakeholders while also offering a fast feedback loops for recipients. If you’re not already utilising SMS to enhance discussions with your community, it’s good a time as any to start now.

COVID-19 messaging examples from leading government communicators 

Here are some of the most recent examples of mobile communications we’ve pulled from our database to show you.

Access to healthcare

An example from a leading Federal MP sent out recently to their community to inform them who is at risk, what are specific COVID-19 symptoms, where the nearest COVID-19 testing facilities are, as well as further links to official helplines and government-sanctioned information. For many in government representatives, getting this need-to-know information out to residents is of prime importance. Many residents look to their local representatives during a crisis or disaster. It’s on you to ensure that they have all the information they need to protect themselves, as well as where and what they can do to access key hubs to get the most accurate help and information.

Note: This SMS has been set up with an opt-out automation, indicating that the councillor is following Australian compliance and regulations. Ensure that whatever you are sending satisfies local laws too.

Government health advice

Government health advice SMS text alert

From other government reps, we are seeing messaging focused on general health advice to guide future behaviour, such as social distancing, in order to help protect as many communities as possible. Encouraging your constituents to work together to prevent the spread, alongside what actions they can personally take, may be one of the most common and effective SMS strategies we’re seeing.

Top tip: In this fictionalised example based on a real send, Greta Bairnsdale MP could have made her messaging even more effective by adding a personalised greeting. Instead of ‘Hi’, add in your recipient’s name so it becomes ‘Hi Sarah’. When you’re personalising your messages, we encourage adding first names and other personal information relevant to your message. This may include their child’s name if you’re an educator, or the doctor they have seen if they are a patient at your clinic. We have seen many local councils include unique reference numbers in their send. These are often used to facilitate a mobile payment or to accelerate check-in at appointments.

Changes to community care

Changes to community care SMS alert

We are also seeing a lot of messaging updates focused on changes to traditional face-to-face services. In this specific case, this community health service is using SMS to check on their client’s health before an on-site visit. Letting your residents know about these changes beforehand, or in the process of, is important in keeping government staff and teams protected. Ensure you include what actions residents must take in order to reach the outcome they desire. In the above example, this resident is encouraged to cancel her visit if anyone in the house is unwell. However, that may not always be necessary as we talk about in our next example.

Change face-to-face services

Changing face to face services SMS alert

There have also been many messaging campaigns centred around changes to community services. For initiatives in your district or under your remit, it may not need as strict actioning such as the cancellation or rescheduling of appointments. Changing your meetings from face-to-face appointments to a teleconference or web-based solution may be possible. Your messaging should indicate that this is an option should the resident be interested.

COVID-19 screening

Changes to External Procedures SMS Alert

Like we’ve seen with employer-employee relations, alerting your constituents to the warning signs or symptoms of a possible COVID-19 infection is an important task. You could put out requests to the community for at-risk declarations. This allows for two-way conversational messaging to happen where residents are asked to screen themselves and respond if they exhibit symptoms or qualify under COVID-19 medical criteria. This can potentially be expanded out to help residents understand whether they qualify for other government initiatives such as rental relieffinancial support or free childcare.

Top tip: Setting up automations for two-way way conversations is easy, and quickly allows you to segment residents into those affected, and those who are not. In the context of a pandemic where its governments may want to be able to track the spread of a disease or virus, this is extremely important.

How you can get started with SMS messaging

While we’ve seen a lot of best practice examples, it’s possible that many of yours will differ and may not be represented here. That’s why it’s a good idea for you to start preparing early to send your SMS broadcasts.

CALL OUT: For a longer and more in-depth list, read our blog on Top tips for emergency broadcasts.

1. Data Preparation   

Make sure you’ve got the correct contact information for recipients. If you’re an education provider, you can use SMS to collect data from the parents of your students. If you’re a healthcare practitioner, you can do the same with your patients or with other staff members employed at your clinic. In addition, make sure this is organised via Contact Groups, that the data is correct and re-checked, and that it is stored in your database with the correct formatting.

2. Preparing your messages  

Ensure your messages have the highest impact by making sure the message is personalised, that the sender is easily identifiable. Recipients should also be able to engage with the information in some way, whether that’s by clicking on a link to find out more information or replying to the message to answer a question posed by you. Enable additional features if you want to use more dynamic messaging, or if you want to save extra characters by using short trackable links.

Top tip: Follow our best practice messaging structure to make sure your message hits right every time.

3. Allow for large sends

While some of us may only have to send out to 50 recipients, there are many more who must broaden their send because of how many COVID-19 is impacting. Get your head around automations, especially if you are after two-way conversational messaging as we mentioned before around data collection. Check your credit limits for pre-paid accounts or plan allowance for post-paid accounts. Why? You want to make sure that the number of new users you want to reach matches the number of users you can currently reach out to. And don’t forget to test! Pull a few dummy recipients from your company and send a campaign broadcast. Get them to reply if you’ve got automations set up too

4. Is it time to send yet?  

Almost. Remember those two-way automations? If you’re expecting responses, stagger your send so that your team isn’t overwhelmed with the sheer amount of replies. Also consider where and whom you’re sending. If your recipients are in another time zone, it may be good to account for that. MessageMedia’s socially aware function automatically sends them at a desirable time for your recipient, no matter where they are.

Top tip: How SMS can simulate a customer service help desk  – Many organisations simply do not have the facilities nor financials to support a 24/7 customer service help desk. Given the ability to have conversations with recipients via SMS, any replies you receive will be sent to your portal’s internal inbox. Your team can then monitor and reply to them when available. Many companies already do this to take sales orders, distribute rosters, and send appointment reminders.

Further COVID-19 resources   

  • If you haven’t explored it yet, take a look around our COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Resources Hub that we built to help you handle urgent SMS broadcasts.
  • Read about our recent partnership with Bang the Table to help government organisations at every level improve engagement and feedback with local communities
  • Want to see SMS broadcasts in action, and get SMS templates, guides direct to your mobile phone? Text ‘SUPPORT’ to our support line at +61463278682 or, if you’re in North America, text +18444425682

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