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Gov. Hutchinson describes how COVID-19 changed communication for politicians

This time last year news headlines in Arkansas were tough. And while things are now looking up, there’s still a long way to go.

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — This time last year news headlines in Arkansas were tough.  And while things are now looking up, there’s still a long way to go.

To share these important updates, amid the pandemic, state governors were thrust into a new spotlight and forced to make some tough decisions.

"Well, I certainly never thought I'd work during a pandemic and be involved as a leader during that time," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.  

Whether it’s the latest COVID numbers or coordinating the rollout of the Pfizer vaccine for young kids, the pandemic has put politicians into an unprecedented crisis response mode-- one where communication saw a new level of importance. 

"I saw communication and action post 9/11, I was a part of that. And that carried on, it made me realize the very beginning of this pandemic communication will be critical," Hutchinson said.

The governor’s communication is now more frequent with Washington, coordinating ways to keep the state's best interest in mind-- “Just got off a call with the white house this morning,” he said.

And even more so with constituents.

"Whenever we started those COVID updates, I wanted to provide the journey for all the citizens of Arkansas to walk along with me," Hutchinson said. "And so whenever we had trouble getting personal protective equipment, trying to get it in the global market and the challenges we faced. I shared that information with everybody." 

To date, Gov. Hutchinson has delivered 217 COVID briefings, with his next one scheduled for Monday.

It's a form of communication that’s become an expectation for Arkansans, even as the immediate urgency of the pandemic wanes.

"I'll continue doing weekly updates," Hutchinson said. "I want to get away from COVID just as much as everybody else does. And so, particularly whenever there's not anything newsworthy or urgent to convey, we like to talk about other topics."

Those topics range from redistricting updates, to eviction aid, to local rice farming data--  bringing more Arkansans into the statewide conversation.

There's a larger emphasis on communication overall-- reminiscent of Roosevelt’s fireside chats. But, today's digital advancements have revolutionized the outreach of these conversations. 

"That's what's changed since I've been governor, is the ability to communicate so directly to really each individual voter in the state," Hutchinson said. "I think it's a good change. Technology always brings good changes, it's an incredible tool. But it has to be used with common sense, and not in isolation and not with such a level of intensity that you're saying things that you would never say, in a public environment." 

Technology that also showcases a digital record of history, one that the governor is eager to look back on years from now.

"I probably need a couple of years to look back and say, history will tell us that mistakes are made or not made. By and large, I think the decisions we made were reflective of Arkansas, and fit our state and work," he said.

The pandemic forced politicians to make decisions, even if they weren’t always popular with those around the state.

"Well, you learned early on in this, that any decision you make is going to be an unpopular decision… And so I believe you listen to science, I believe in the data. And you follow that. But you also have to understand Arkansas, and understand what people will accept and what is doable and what might not be doable," Hutchinson said.

And, as the governor looks towards the future, he's hopeful that an effective method of communication with continue on with whoever is next to take his seat.

"I think they'll figure out their own path….But you know, that direct communication, and the importance of communication will not change whoever is governor.