CEDAR RAPIDS — For Maria Johnson, the city of Cedar Rapids communication division manager, 2020 was a year of adapting.
Between the pandemic and the derecho, Johnson — who manages a team of communications professionals who keep information flowing between the city’s divisions and its residents — said the past year has challenged traditional communications methods and forced her and her team to think creatively.
The city has multiple ways by which it disseminates information, Johnson said. Text alerts, news releases, televised news conferences, social media — all are tools the city uses regularly.
But many of those methods were disrupted in August by the storm, which leveled a large swath of Eastern Iowa, damaging homes, destroying acres of trees and corn and knocking out electricity, internet and communications for days — or weeks for many residents.
“It really was an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Johnson said. “The storm really forced us to find new ways to push information out. With cellphone service not really working and the internet and power out, the methods we would typically use to get information out was not going to work. And I knew, we needed to get information out to people in the best way they’re able to get information.”
Johnson and her team turned their focus to text alerts and social media. They also engaged media outlets — especially radio stations — to keep the public informed.
“We needed to make sure that we were getting as much information out in as many ways as possible,” she said. “So, pretty early on, I came up with the idea of printing informational flyers. So we put together basically a news release, right away on Tuesday morning, and we just started printing them, and handing them out to police patrol officers and our public works teams since they were out in the community and asked them to hand them out to everybody.”
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The flyers were updated and printed daily for at least two weeks, Johnson said, and stacks were given to Hy-Vee, Home Depot, Menard’s and other locations that residents were frequenting, in addition to city employees and emergency personnel. Flyers were also handed out at food distribution locations. The city held news conferences, too, as services started being restored.
“I mean, we were doing everything we could to get information out as quickly as possible in whatever ways we could do it,” she said.
A Cedar Rapids native, Johnson graduated from Jefferson High School in 1995. She went to the University of Northern Iowa where she studied public relations, and later the University of Iowa where she earned an MBA.
After school, Johnson and her husband moved to Chicago for a short stint — about five years — but decided to move back to Cedar Rapids when they found out they were having twins.
Johnson was hired by the city for her current job in January 2014.
In her position, Johnson oversees a team and manages communications for the city’s departments, the city manager’s office and the City Council. She also handles communications for the Economic Development Division and transit.
Looking back on the past year, Johnson said adaptability was a major theme for the communications division.
“I think one of the things we’ll take away from this year is that we have to be able to pivot,” she said. “We want to make sure that we are ready respond to whatever arises, and I feel very confident that we are. I’m so proud of our employees. I mean, we talk about the derecho, we had employees whose houses were destroyed or damaged and they still showed up to work every day. And to me, that is just really cool and it says a lot about our city employees and how dedicated they are to this community. Our employees, our City Council and city manager, everyone is so dedicated to making this community the best that it can possibly be.”
Johnson said she is proud of Cedar Rapids.
“One of the things I like most about my job is that I get to promote Cedar Rapids and the community and keep people informed about our ideas and what we’re doing,” she said. “And that’s a really cool thing because I am proud of my city. I am proud to be from Cedar Rapids and the city government and what we’re doing, and I want the people who live here to be proud, too. And in this job, I get to promote all the ideas and plans and things that the city is doing, and I think that’s a really great thing.”
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