NYC Uses Texting as a Major Communications Source

Government press conferences and email updates are popular ways of communicating during coronavirus. But with information flooding in about defining a dry cough to how long it takes to wash your hands, the public is overwhelmed, confused and prone to following false information.

One of the epicenters of the crisis, New York City, is home to 8.7 million people. Getting messages to every resident in the country's largest city is of utmost importance, particularly with so many people living in close proximity. Any change in normalcy has the opportunity to impact thousands.

To streamline messaging and quickly disburse important updates, the NYC Emergency Management unit is texting. New Jersey has followed suit. The Pew Research Center says 96 percent of Americans own a mobile phone.

PRNEWS talked with a spokesperson from NYC Emergency Management about the text-message communication strategy, including how it came to be and what other governments can learn from it.

PRNEWS: Why did the government decide this was a good route for communication?

NYCEM: We use the SMS opt-in system for many large-scale events, such as the Thanksgiving Day parade or New Year’s Eve celebrations in Times Square. It is reliable, scalable, and easy to operationalize, traits that are essential in an emergency situation. It provides residents a way to quickly access critical information.

PRNEWS: How do you decide what content goes in the text updates?

NYCEM: The health and safety of every New Yorker receiving the information is paramount, and we work closely with every agency to ensure our messages are clear and consistent. This is a fluid, ever-changing situation, and we want to make sure we are connecting with people during this time to provide them with the trusted information they need, from health guidance to school closures.

PRNEWS: What can other governments learn from this?

NYCEM: It is critical to have a way for residents to quickly opt-in to receive emergency information, especially in a fluid situation such as COVID-19. In NY, we have worked hard to streamline all messaging across City agencies to provide one, clear distribution channel for all official updates.

Regardless of distribution method or messaging capabilities, this interagency coordination has been a driving factor behind the success of the SMS opt-in program. It is a best practice for any jurisdiction considering a similar operation.

PRNEWS: What sort of numbers are you expecting to opt-in?

NYCEM: Subscriber numbers increase significantly when mentioned by trusted officials and/or partner agencies. We have more than 659,000 subscribers for English, and more than 22,000 for Spanish. We have seen a consistent rise in subscribers throughout the response so far. I hope to continue to see that rise to allow us to reach as many New Yorkers as possible.

PRNEWS: How was it implemented?

NYCEM: The short-code, 692-692, is specific to NYC Emergency Management and is always available to be used. For this instance, NYC Emergency Management worked with City Hall and the NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene to agree on the keyword, COVID for English, and COVIDESP for Spanish, and any subsequent messaging.

The keyword was then operationalized via our emergency notification system, Everbridge, and immediately ready to be used/advertised to the public. NYC Emergency Management has a 24/7 Public Warning Specialist staff on-duty that worked since activation to send messages to this new group.

This article is part of PRNEWS' daily COVID-19 coverage, click here to see the latest updates.