Leveraging Social Media in Local Government

By Ryan Barton

The social media phenomenon is sweeping the world. Ninety-six percent of Generation Y has joined a social network and, by 2010, they will outnumber Baby Boomers. Social media is the number one activity on the web. If Facebook were a country, it would be the fourth largest in the world. Over two billion pieces of content are shared on Facebook each week.

Social media is affecting nearly every form of communication as the world goes digital. Thirty-five percent of all books sold on Amazon are for the Kindle (Amazon’s digital reader), while 24 of the 25 largest newspapers are experiencing record declines. According to a recent survey, 80 percent of companies are using (or plan to use) LinkedIn to find and attract job candidates. About one in five Americans uses a service such as Twitter.

Social media is not a fad. It is a fundamental shift in how communication occurs. Its uses are growing daily, and it is here to stay.

Social Media in Municipalities

Most of us, often without realizing it, have experienced some form of social media—whether through watching a video on YouTube, reading a community-given product review, joining Facebook or perusing a blog. And yet, ask many municipal officials about Facebook or Twitter and you will likely hear a response detailing how to control these “threats." Typical are concerns about employee productivity, safeguarding proper flow of information and opening up the municipality to Right to Know Law requests.

Admittedly, the use of social media has its share of challenges. (Watch for next month’s New Hampshire Town and City article by LGC Staff Attorney Christine Fillmore.) These technologies are powerful tools which can be used for many purposes and must be handled carefully. However, municipalities that have effectively deployed them have improved communication with residents, solicited valuable feedback, disseminated critical information and encouraged more active participation in local government from a diverse age group—all at virtually no cost.

Some municipalities have also seen significant citizen-driven, social media initiatives (such as Twitter and Facebook pages). Often, they are started by residents who are proud of their communities and are using the sites to make announcements about municipal and community events (unfortunately, some fail to make a clear distinction between what is a “personal" site and what is an “official" site). Municipal officials could learn much about what their citizens are proud of, concerned about and interested in by seeking out and following local Facebook and Twitter pages. As a “listening" tool alone, social media has significant value.

In addition, numerous municipalities have unlocked the power of social media as an official tool, and they are finding key ways to effectively leverage this new technology. They are using it to improve and promote the business of local government and, by doing so, are setting an example for others to follow. They are proving that social media is the fastest, most frictionless way to reach a large group of people—all while encouraging feedback and community interaction.

These municipalities are demonstrating what an incredibly valuable tool social media can be in the hands of local government.

Overview of Social Media Technologies

With new technologies emerging every day, it can be helpful to define terms. Briefly, “social media" is a general term for Internet technologies which allow users to connect with each other, interact and “congregate" in an online environment. Users create their own content, versus solely viewing content.

Common types of social media technologies include social networking (such as Facebook), media sharing (such as YouTube), blogs and microblogs (such as Twitter) and many more. The vast majority of social media technologies are free. Following is a glossary to give a brief (and by no means comprehensive) introduction to these technologies:

Web 2.0. To differentiate from “web 1.0" (in which the users primary role was to view the information on the website), “web 2.0" was coined as a broad term for technologies which allow the user to interact with the website and actually generate content. As an example, rather than solely watching a video on a website, users can actually upload their own videos.

Blog. Short for “weblog"—an informal online journal. Can be a verb (“to blog something") or a noun (“read a blog"). Blogs often encourage readers to post comments and publicly discuss the blog. Many blogs are essentially online diaries, while others are highly informative news or subject commentaries.

Social networking. Social networking is the act of connecting with others in a personal way via Internet communities. Rather than simply interacting with a website, visitors use the website as a vehicle to connect with each other. Popular examples are as follows:

Facebook: The largest social networking site in the world, Facebook allows each member to post details about themselves (photos, description, likes/dislikes, etc.) and connect with friends, acquaintances, celebrities and more. They can then message back and forth, view profiles, play games and interact in many different ways.

LinkedIn: Designed for professionals, LinkedIn is a business-oriented social networking site that allows users to post information and connect with other business professionals. It is commonly used as a recruiting and job seeking tool.

YouTube. The world’s largest video sharing website. Users can upload their own videos as well as watch others’ videos.

Flickr. A popular image sharing website. It could be described as the “YouTube of photos."

Twitter. A microblog site. Users can post messages up to 140 characters in length. Users typically update Twitter frequently, and they “follow" each other to easily see what others are saying or doing. A number of celebrities have helped boost the site’s popularity, but it is also a valuable source for official news. Each individual message posted on Twitter is a “tweet." The action of posting on Twitter is typically called “tweeting" or “to tweet."

RSS Feeds. Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds offer a way of streaming data from a website to a user. The user can deploy a simple application to subscribe to multiple RSS feeds. Then, rather than checking each site for the latest news, they receive all the news via RSS feeds in one application.

Wiki. A website that allows virtually anyone to edit and add to the content simply and easily (“wiki" is a Hawaiian term meaning quick). Wikipedia is the most famous wiki. It is a user-generated online encyclopedia which anyone can edit. Wikipedia was founded to assemble as much of the wealth of human knowledge in one place as possible. While studies have shown that it can be nearly as accurate as Encyclopedia Britannica, because anyone can edit Wikipedia, it needs to be referenced carefully. Overall, Wikipedia is an excellent place to learn more about the aforementioned technologies.

Using Social Media in Local Government

There are numerous ways social media can be leveraged for local government, and many cities and towns have already found innovative, intriguing and safe ways to deploy these technologies. A few examples are as follows:

Important announcements via Twitter. The town of Exeter, New Hampshire (twitter.com/ExeterNH) is just one example of a growing list of municipalities that tweet about town announcements, community drives, volunteer requests and important alerts. View the Local Government Center’s Twitter account as another example.

Disaster planning with social media. In January, 2009, Madisonville, Kentucky was hit with a severe ice storm. In the immediate aftermath, Mayor Will Cox began using his cell phone to post updates and reach out to the community via Facebook, with amazing results.  To learn more, read the full article.

Community interaction on Facebook. Numerous municipalities are opening official Facebook accounts with great success.  Visit Exeter, NH as one example.

Communication and interaction via blogs. Even the federal government is starting to share information and personalize communication via blogs. Visit the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) blog as an example. Local governments can use blogs to keep residents informed (such as regarding a new city project), solicit discussion and increase transparency.

Town history on Wikis. Wikipedia already contains many great articles on towns and cities in New Hampshire which can be updated and edited by the community. It is also possible to integrate a wiki into a municipality’s website to encourage community participation.

Sharing information on YouTube. Videos from municipal officials can be an effective way to speak directly to residents and encourage feedback. Alternately, public meetings can be posted directly to YouTube.

And many more. There are many ways to use the various types of social media. During his campaign, Barack Obama’s website listed 16 social media sites on which he had a presence. Interestingly, many consider him to be the first presidential candidate to effectively leverage social media, and it has been argued that it was a major factor in his success.

Next Steps

So, the question becomes, how best to implement these new technologies in your municipality?

First, there are many good resources to discover more about social media and how it is affecting local government. A few are as follows:

10 Ways Facebook Pages Can Help Local Governments Better Serve Their Constituents
10 Local Government Social Media Myths
Twitter, Blogs, and Other Web 2.0 Tools Revolutionize Government Business
A Beginner’s Guide to Twitter in Local Government
Stop the Posturing about Government 2.0 and Do It Already

A simple web search will turn up many more valuable articles.

Secondly, use social media personally first. Become accustomed to the different technologies; experiment with them and explore how other municipalities are using them. Follow a few people on Twitter, open a Facebook account and comment on a few blogs (potentially, start your own!). Note the power of social media, as well as its ever-present dark side.

Determine whether or not social media is right for your municipality. Is it an effective way for the town or city to communicate with residents? Are the right people in place to deploy it properly? Have you considered all the risks and developed sensible policies to mitigate those risks? Set some goals, and consider seeking legal counsel before implementing social media.

Once goals are set, consider what technologies would most effectively reach them. There are numerous social media tools, and they should not be chosen at random. Will a Facebook account work best, or would a blog serve you better? Should both be deployed—and for what departments?

Finally, start implementing some basic social media technologies officially. Encourage community participation and monitor carefully. Respond quickly to concerns and potential issues. Experiment with different technologies and see how well it works for your municipality. As it works, expand and explore this new world!

Here to Stay

Social media will be leveraged by municipalities more and more extensively in the near future. It is likely that soon all municipalities will face the question of how and when to realize the power of these technologies. As they find the answer to that question, we will see local government undergo a positive evolution.

Social media is here to stay. But don’t just read about it—see for yourself!

See you in the blogosphere!

Ryan Barton is the president of Mainstay Technologies, an information technology firm specializing in providing the services of a full IT department to small-medium sized organizations. Mainstay provides IT services for numerous municipalities throughout New Hampshire.