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Sunday, 1 January 2012
Cities Cast Net Into Social Media
For many people, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are as common as coffee klatches or old-fashioned party lines once were.
But for area city governments, they’re still something of a novelty.
An informal survey by the Denton Record-Chronicle found that cities in northern Denton County are starting to use social media to reach residents, but few are using it extensively.
One exception is Denton City Hall, which has eight Facebook pages, seven Twitter accounts and a YouTube channel. The flourish of activity came after the city issued a directive in 2010 with guidelines for employees using social media on the city’s behalf.
A University of Pennsylvania study in 2010 found that half of surveyed cities lacked a presence on Facebook or Twitter. But that’s likely changing as more local governments across the country brush aside reservations and turn to social media to stay relevant.
“Increasingly, that’s how people are getting information, and it’s not just young kids,” said Denton City Council member Kevin Roden, an active blogger whose Twitter account has about 670 followers.
“I’m in my upper 30s. People in their 60s now have Facebook accounts,” he said. “It’s a great way of meeting citizens where they’re at.”
Social media use has risen dramatically among all age groups since 2005, and a majority of adults younger than 65 now use social networking sites, according to the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank. More than eight in 10 adults younger than 30 use social media, as do a third of adults older than 65.
New York attracted attention last January when it hired the city’s first chief digital officer to manage digital communications. Baltimore announced it would follow suit later in the year.
Few cities had detailed plans for social media use when Denton was forming its guidelines, which were based on ones in Round Rock, Texas, and Fairfax County, Va., city webmaster Kevin McGinnis said during a recent council meeting.
The guidelines stress the need for professional, clear and consistent messages, said McGinnis, who shares the work of uploading digital content with nearly 40 “content managers” spread across city departments.
Denton uses social media mostly to publicize upcoming meetings or events, and to alert residents to power outages, traffic accidents or other urgent news. Several departments have their own Facebook and Twitter accounts, including parks and recreation, recycling and the library.
The police department has been particularly active on Twitter, attracting more than 2,600 followers, and made news in March for tweeting every call it received during an eight-hour period. The tweets included the type of call and the police district but did not reveal names or addresses.
Officer Ryan Grelle, who manages the department’s Twitter account, said feedback from followers has been overwhelmingly positive.
Among other area cities, Lake Dallas keeps its Facebook page current with announcements of closings and other official city business.
Some city groups are using social media to reach residents. The Aubrey Area Library keeps a blog and a Facebook page. Facebook pages for the Corinth Police Department and the animal shelters in Pilot Point, Hickory Creek and Lake Dallas are kept current. A bond committee promoted November’s election for a $10 million bond in Lake Dallas on Facebook.
Some are learning that social media takes time and resources to maintain. The Hickory Creek Economic Development Corp. started a Facebook page to promote local businesses when the iconic Hickory Creek Barbecue was sold, but volunteers haven’t added items to the page since June.
Current council members in Providence Village have used many forms of electronic media, including social media, to good effect, said council member Ernie Law.
With the exception of a private website that residents used as a forum, there wasn’t a tradition of communicating through town newsletters or the newspaper. As a brand-new town, officials had to find a way to reach other residents where they were — and in ways that didn’t cost much money.
“When we incorporated last year, we only had a couple hundred dollars,” Law said.
They started with basic media.
“We weren’t scared to do it,” Law said. “We started with a Google phone number that went to voice mail because we couldn’t pay for a line. We still use it now for our municipal court.”
The town has a Twitter account and a Facebook page.
It has started using MailChimp to capture e-mail addresses from both sites to help them distribute agendas and other information residents need to have.
Social media does have pitfalls.
“Sending a tweet is starting a conversation,” said Samra Bufkins, a lecturer in strategic communications at the University of North Texas’ Mayborn School of Journalism. “That’s a mistake that a lot of companies and governments have made in the past; they went to the old ‘push’ model of communication, where you put the information out there and it’s a one-way channel. The people on the other end have questions, comments, concerns. You’ve got to be willing to have somebody monitoring that conversation and responding.”
Managing social media takes staff time, and some cities, including Denton, have yet to put a price tag on it. Governments that want to remove inappropriate or libelous comments from their pages have to worry about infringing on the commenter’s free-speech rights. There’s also uncertainty over how social media fits into sunshine and record-retention laws.
In Providence Village, for practical reasons, there isn’t a lot of interaction on either Facebook or Twitter. Law and one other council member monitor the pages to make sure.
When elections come around, however, elected officials have used their personal Facebook pages to encourage people to vote.
Providence Village probably will never have the voter turnout it did to incorporate, Law said, but he thinks the town’s latest vote — which adopted a sales tax to boost the general fund — had a better turnout because of the use of social media. During the last election, one voter even posted a photo of himself with his “I Voted” sticker to encourage others to do the same.
Law points to the exceptionally low turnout in Aubrey’s local-option election as an example. Just 40 people, or less than 3 percent of registered voters, cast ballots, with the measure defeated 24 to 15.
“It’s obvious they didn’t care about the outcome,” Law said. “If you utilize social media, it really increases the turnout.”
Yet even the best social media won’t reach everyone, especially people who are older or have lower incomes, according to a 2010 report by the Washington-based International City/County Management Association. The report says social media is best seen as a supplement to traditional communication methods.
That fact was highlighted recently when a Denton man, unaware that the A-train passenger rail service wasn’t running the day after Christmas, found himself stranded at Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s Trinity Mills Station in Carrollton on a return trip from San Marcos. The Denton County Transportation Authority, which runs the A-train, said it publicized the closing in a variety of forums, including Facebook and Twitter, but didn’t have a sign posted at Trinity Mills.