Chicago’s Census Cowboy and Other Tactics in 2020 – Absurd or Effective?

Photo of Kristin Monroe

BY Kristin Monroe

August 2, 2020

Public Affairs Public Relations

In Illinois, we’ve seen our city and state governing bodies step up to stop the spread of COVID-19. Living in Chicago, I’ve relied on Mayor Lori Lightfoot and her administration for science-based actions and clear updates on health and safety measures.

I admire her administration’s willingness to jump on new communications platforms and execute attention-grabbing campaigns in a period of crisis. From branded Chicago flag masks to social media led initiatives, this resourcefulness and ability to pivot have deepened her connection to the city’s residents and framed Chicago’s initial COVID-19 shut down as a point of civic pride.

These initiatives have earned Mayor Lightfoot her highest approval ratings so far, with 78% overall approval and an 86% approval rating for her handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a poll released in early July.

At the start of shelter-in-place, Mayor Lightfoot’s decision to lean into the now famous memes helped establish an authoritative but not overbearing tone for all her communications. By using humor, Chicagoans warmed to her “strict aunt” persona, literally placing cut-out figures of her on their front lawns.

Mayor Lightfoot recently made headlines enlisting the aptly named the Dreadhead Cowboy to ride into Chicago neighborhoods with low responses to the 2020 Census and encourage participation. While the move left many scratching their heads about the unconventional approach, the Dreadhead Cowboy led to widespread media coverage in Chicago and beyond about the 2020 Census at a time when breaking into the headlines can seem impossible with the amount of news coming out every minute.

This move was a classic PR stunt, flashy and unique enough to break through the dense news cycle. The Lightfoot administration tapped a popular individual who had already received attention and notoriety.

The “Census Cowboy” is just one example of how Mayor Lightfoot has appealed to constituents with varying communications styles and platforms. Here are a few effective communications activities:

  • She starred in several personable online video PSAs to urge Chicagoans to stay home and practice health habits. Her YouTube video alone has nearly 95,000 views.
  • She recently partnered with major sports teams to encourage the 19- to 29-year-old demographic to comply with mask wearing as that group has been experiencing an uptick in COVID-19 cases.
  • She made her TikTok debut with a dance to appeal to graduating high school seniors to promote the citywide virtual graduation on a platform where those students were already present. The video, just on TikTok, received more than 40,000 views. No word on her daughter’s reaction so far.
  • She has used Twitter, President Donald Trump’s preferred platform to respond swiftly to actions taken by the federal government she doesn’t agree with.
  • Held standard press briefings and updates on a near daily basis since mid-March and launched a daily Facebook and Twitter livestream called ‘THE DOC IS IN: ASK DR. ARWADY LIVE Q&A’ to give Chicagoans a chance to hear from the Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady, M.D. These videos are averaging between 5,000 and 25,000 views.

All these tactics seem to be having their desired outcome as notably the City of Chicago remains below a 4% positivity rate for COVID-19. However, people have vehemently called out Mayor Lightfoot and her administration’s social stunts as a distraction for acting strongly following the death of George Floyd, which led to citywide protests, growing civil unrest and calls for swift action. The Census Cowboy stunt was met with criticism for its lighthearted nature as more pressing issues like an increase in gun violence require the Mayor’s attention. The Mayor has been met with protestors outside her home on multiple occasions and droves of criticism on social media over the last two months.

The reality remains that we have a fractured news ecosystem and people are getting their information from a variety of platforms. The onus is on elected officials, businesses, and all organizations to meet their audiences where they are, and for that Mayor Lightfoot gets high marks.

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Photo of Kristin Monroe

BY Kristin Monroe

August 2, 2020

Public Affairs Public Relations