Survey says city of Aspen needs public’s help in communication

Kirstin Klein passes masks out of Aspen City Hall to community members on Thursday, May 7, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The city of Aspen is restructuring its communications department now that its director has stepped down and the municipal government has acclimated to disseminating information in a COVID world.

The reassessment begins with what is described as an “expansive communications survey” that is anticipated this fall, asking residents how they want their government to communicate with them.

Community members also will be asked what they see as priorities for the city’s communications department, how they want messages delivered, and what they see as strengths, weaknesses and barriers.

“You can’t sit behind these walls and try to figure out what people want,” said Mitzi Rapkin, the city’s communications manager. “We want you to tell us where you want the information and how to get it to you.”

Alissa Farrell, the city’s administrative services director, said on Friday officials are looking at a possible online focus group to get feedback on how to strengthen the government’s community engagement.

That group will likely be made up of specific community members who stated in the 2019 overall community survey that they would be interested in participating in communications and community engagement work, according to Farrell.

“In the development of a strategic communications plan, an important component is gathering feedback from the Aspen community,” Farrell said. “The survey results are intended to help determine city’s communication priorities, strengths, concerns and generate innovative ideas, so that in turn we can co-create solutions that continue to enrich Aspen.”

A comprehensive community engagement strategy had been planned but Tracy Trulove, who filled the newly created position of communications director last year, stepped down in June.

She had been moved to Pitkin County’s incident management team when the COVID-19 crisis took hold of the Aspen area in mid-March.

Trulove is now employed on a contractual basis for the county as a COVID-19 crisis communicator.

In Trulove’s absence during the first few months of the pandemic, Rapkin said she developed a crisis communications strategic plan for how the city was giving COVID-19 information to the public.

“It was our template on how to communicate since we were getting this information to people as soon as we knew it,” Rapkin said, noting the rapidly changing conditions during the outset of the outbreak.

The city reassigned three staffers from other departments to help with communications, and the increased presence on the government’s social media accounts got in front of tens of thousands of people.

In the first COVID-19 communication update to Aspen City Council last month, Rapkin reported that there was a 90% increase in visitors to the city’s website; a 278% increase in tweets; a 1,000% increase in posts on Facebook and a 3,100% spike in posts on Instagram.

Rapkin chalks those numbers up to having a team to help on social media platforms, as well as public demand to get as much information on COVID-19 as possible.

The city’s outreach portal,, hit record participation when it came to asking people’s opinions on whether construction should be expedited to fuel the economy during COVID-19 conditions, as well as how outdoor dining and retail should encroach into the public right of way.

“We had thousands of people interacting,” Rapkin said.

The most popular posts have been the Aspen Police Department’s video of some of its officers playing in a band singing their rendition of the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”, as well as the city’s letter to the community explaining its support for the Black Lives Matter movement and anything related to wearing a face mask.

Moving forward, Rapkin has developed a yard sign campaign that promotes social distancing, and features wildlife and recreating analogies.

The goal with the messaging is to drive home the point that COVID-19 presents a danger and people will change their behaviors, and that it’s clever enough that it’s worthy of sharing on social media.

Rapkin also is creating a digital dashboard that will track for the public and council how the city’s $6 million COVID-19 relief fund is getting spent down.

Top city officials are assessing how to move forward with the communications department structure, but they do plan to fill the position, although it may be retitled to strategic communications director.

“We are also looking into a communications audit to be completed in the near future,” Farrell said. “In light of COVID-19, the audit would address the changing trends in how our audience consumes city news and provide recommendations on how to increase engagement.”