Wellington: Day Seven – Marketing vs Messaging

After nearly a week of the lockdown, the city appears to be faring quite well. Neighbourhoods are bustling, and most people are in good spirits. Still, it is early days with continued speculation that we may be in lockdown for longer than the four weeks, something that most of us can handle I am sure, though we must remain cognisant of the fact that many people are suffering right now.

That suffering is taking a variety of forms. People who have lost their jobs, those who suffer at the hands of odious property management companies, our frontline neighbours who risk their lives to feed and protect us while copping abuse, the vulnerable who struggle to travel to the supermarket, and those locked down in overcrowded houses with little room to breathe.

I’ve been following the communications coming out of the Wellington City Council this week because I expect that we need to see powerful, up-front, leadership right now at a city-wide and suburb level. Unfortunately, the communications haven’t been great and now is the perfect opportunity to up the game, change the language, engage, and become more transparent.

I write this carefully, as I know that the WCC, just like the rest of us, find themselves in a strange place, stressed out, struggling, and wanting to do their very best for the city. Some parts are working better than others, and I do want to say thanks for your continued efforts to get this right.

Some of the messaging will be getting lost in the overwhelming communications that are coming from the central government. Daily live stand-ups on national television and relentless advertising campaigns across the country are proving their worth.

It was then with some surprise this week that we saw some off track and sometimes tone-deaf messaging from the city leaders, not just the Council, but a handful of lobby groups as well as WREDA and the Wellington Chamber of Commerce.

A full-page newspaper advertisement by Wellington’s economic development agency has been slammed for being out of touch with the city and criticised for having no public health or council services information.

The issue has united local MPs from across the political spectrum who told the Herald that what people needed in a pandemic was information, not “pretty pictures in the newspaper”.

On Saturday Wellington NZ, a council-controlled organisation, launched a campaign centred on putting the “We” in Wellington during the Covid-19 outbreak.

This was done in conjunction with the Council, but it’s understood Wellington NZ took the lead on the project and did the design work. The first city councillors heard of it was in the newspaper.

Covid-19 coronavirus: Campaign leaves Wellington City Councillors embarrassed

Then, following that full-page monstrosity, this;

Today the city council bought another full page advertisement in the DomPost – a very different one. Over-stuffed with text, and also including messages from WREDA and the Chamber of Commerce, it leaves more confusion about what the Council wants to convey to us.

What are they trying to tell us?

That’s an excellent question. Because the statement contained in there appears to be the usual Council fluff with the exception of the “What we are doing to help” section, which provides some information on activity rather than what people want to really know.

Because a pandemic is somewhat of a slow-burning disaster, we don’t tend to react quite the same way as if it were an instant disaster. But, it is an absolute disaster for the city regardless.

Imagine if, after an earthquake that knocked over half the city, the Council took out a glossy front page that had been created by what appears to be a marketing team.

It’s good to inspire confidence and let people know to be positive, and, over the next few weeks, that will be important. However, what is important now is not marketing, but messaging.

Also missing the mark locally are several lobby groups pushing their agendas around the future of the city. They are now, rightfully, starting to take a high degree of critical feedback on their messages. Put simply; it’s a bit too soon to be having those political and minority agendas rammed down our throats when we are just getting to grips with a catastrophic disaster. Go home, have a cup of tea, and come back in a couple of weeks.

Messaging from most of the region’s councils have been a bit poor over the last week or so, let’s be honest, it’s not just the WCC that have struggled.

The best place to get Council information right now is their website, which has most of what you need to know. On a service by service basis, they explain where things are at. It’s useful data and easily accessible for most.

That’s what the city needs. Useful, clean, simple, factual, accurate data that is easily accessible and the same messages again, and again, and again.

It is in times like this that we do expect our Mayor and Councillors to stand up and speak, regularly. Not just one, but all. Except for a handful of Councillors, most have simply fallen silent. They could be doing a lot better.

With Council as their full-time job and them being locked at home with the technology to engage with the most of the community, online clinics could be opened for people to ask for help or raise issues, and frequently asked questions about suburb and wards published.

1 – Which businesses in my suburb are open?

2 – Which of those businesses deliver?

3 – I have an issue with a Council service I am not getting satisfaction resolving, can you help?

4 – Did you know that insert issue here is happening in my neighbourhood?

5 – How can I give back to my community right now?

In the absence of useful information being regularly messaged to the suburbs, city, and country, people will fill in the blanks and make stuff up. If you want to see this in action, then right now, Facebook and Neighbourly are flooded with nonsense. In some cases, dangerous nonsense.

That nonsense needs to be actively challenged by the city, and us, across those channels. That means reading the local pages, the large ones like Wellington LIVE and Vic Deals on Facebook, and calmly using those same channels to distribute accurate information.

In the same vein, we need to see the Mayor at least once per day. WCC needs to be working to establish a single, accessible way of getting the daily messages from the Council out. Right now, it is a mish-mash of different information spread all over the place, sometimes contradictory.

Running a digital press conference once per day with the Mayor or Deputy at a time that doesn’t clash with the national broadcasts will be a great way to keep in touch with the residents and reinforce key messages. If nothing else, it could allow for residents to ask questions that they don’t have answers to.

Right now that’s happening, but I guarantee that most of you don’t know when, or where, to go, to see it. THAT is what you need the marketing for.

It’s an excellent place to start when we need less fluff, and consistent centralised messaging, as the days drag into weeks and our isolation starts to become more apparent.

This is also an excellent time to engage the city’s brain in what the future could look like. Leading that conversation, emphasis on leading, should be the Mayor and Councillors.

I spent some time in the last day talking with Andy, and in my next article, I’d like to talk about how that engagement can occur and share some of his thoughts with you. They are essential, positive, and critical messages that will help us to prepare for the recovery phase, which will be extended.

In the meantime, stay safe, it is lovely to see you being kind, and it is beautiful to see that people are pulling together as bubbles, streets, neighbourhoods, suburbs, and a city rather than turning on each other and descending into chaos.

Let’s talk soon, and, to start the next conversation, I’d love to hear from you on what Wellington looks like after this for you.

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