How social media is changing the game for local government
Jan 13, 2020 11:07AM
By Justin Adams
By Justin Adams | [email protected]
It’s hard to think of another innovation that’s gone from non-existent to total dominance of culture and society than social media. From its simpler roots of merely maintaining social relationships online, it has involved to a ubiquitous force that drives headlines, impacts stock prices and even determines elections. It’s no wonder then that its influence has extended to the world of local government.
What sets social media apart from more traditional methods of communication is that it creates an opportunity for a two-way road of communication, said Tami Moody, communication director for Herriman City.
“[Social media] is a way for people to come together and talk about the issues,” Moody said, noting that things like a city newsletter or website are more of a one-way road.
“We try to do stuff that gets us into a conversation with them rather than just throwing information at them,” said Kendra Vicken, a social media manager for Sandy City.
Every municipal government in the Salt Lake Valley currently operates a Facebook from which officials publish information about city council meetings, weather warnings, crime prevention tips and more. Having a strong social media following becomes especially important in potential disaster situations.
“The more people that are following us and engaging with us regularly, the more likely it is that they will see important information in the case of an emergency,” Vicken said.
Some city leaders are even starting to live-stream their city council meetings on platforms such as Facebook or YouTube. Of the 15 Salt Lake County municipalities considered for this article, seven are currently live-streaming their meetings on at least one social media site.
“Not everyone has time to run to a council meeting for four to six hours on a Wednesday night,” said Moody. “We get more viewers through our feed than we’ve ever had in our council chambers.”
The innovation of live-streamed city council meetings isn’t without its drawbacks, however. For example, some viewers may not understand that making a comment on the city’s Facebook livestream isn’t the same thing as making a public comment at the meeting which goes on the city’s record.
Sandy officials currently live streams their city council meetings and is even looking at the possibility of providing a way for residents to make a video-call in to the meeting to deliver an official public comment.
Another social media hurdle for local governments is the challenge of correcting misinformation on a face-less platform that doesn’t lend itself to deep or thorough discussions of complex issues.
“Sometimes, misinformation can be put out there by people, and of course, it grows legs, and we have to try to diffuse it while getting buy-in to what we’re saying,” Moody said. “That can be a challenge.”
As much as possible, the city’s communication staff tries to steer online conversations with the potential for conflict to in-person meetings.
“Social media is also not the place to bicker back and forth,” Moody said. “When we get that, we usually message the individual and say, ‘This is a long, drawn-out conversation. Can we meet face-to-face to talk about it?’’”
While most cities are on social media, there is a lot of variation in how leaders in each city uses it.
Herriman, for example, invests more in its social media presence than other cities because of its young population; the median age in Herriman is 26 years old. Having a younger, more technologically savvy demographic means city leaders need to meet residents where they are, and in this case, that’s social media, said Moody.
In addition to live-streaming city council meetings and alerting residents to road closures, Herriman’s Facebook page also posts a lot of videos. Many of them show off the fun events held within the city. Others are more informative, letting residents know about a new road opening or reminding them to mail in their ballots. At the time of writing this article, there were more than 100 such videos on the Herriman Facebook page in 2019 alone (and that’s not even including all the city council meeting videos).
The only other city to upload more than 100 videos in the last year is Sandy, which pays a contractor to produce high-quality videos for the city’s various departments. That’s a small price to pay, said Vicken, who said video posts reach 10 times as many people as non-video posts.
“People love video,” she said. “People watch them and comment on them and share them. It accomplishes the goal of making sure that information gets out to more people.”
Herriman staff, on the other hand, produces all of its videos on its own.
“It’s more cost-efficient for us to make sure that we can all just do it in-house,” Moody said. “We used to outsource it, but it got really expensive.”
However much a city invests in social media, it’s likely to return good value. The Sandy Amphitheater is owned and operated by the city. Amphitheater officials presented a report to the city council about the 2019 season, which showed the value of social media. In total, city leaders spent $22,000 on Facebook advertising, which directly led to $166,000 worth of tickets bought directly through those advertisements. Overall, 17% of the Amphitheater’s 2019 ticket sales came through a social media ad.
In 2019 Sandy started video series like “Cityology” where each episode profiles a different city employee, or a “Cairns District Highlights” series that exposes Sandy residents to new businesses that have set up shop in the city’s budding downtown area. However, the concept of a city government promoting certain businesses on social media raises some ethical concerns.
“We’ve been very intentional about saying we’re not going to cherry pick and do a video about one business because they were nice to us,” Vicken said. The communications team follows certain journalistic principles that help differentiate between what is “newsworthy” and what might be deemed by some as a commercial.
“It has to be in Sandy and it has to be timely, which is why we haven’t gone back and done old businesses,” Vicken said. “It would either have to be a new business or a business that’s celebrating their 50th birthday. That’s something we would consider newsworthy.”
In Herriman, city staff have had conversations about the same topic and ultimately decided to avoid similar business spotlight series on their social media. While the city profiles local businesses as part of its newsletter, Moody said they felt like residents wouldn’t like to see that on the city’s page or its other platforms.
Of course, the cities themselves aren’t the only ones with Facebook accounts. Many individual elected officials maintain their own public pages separate from their personal accounts, which they can use to interact with their constituents. These elected officials’ accounts present another ethical concern for a city’s social media manager. Because elected officials use those same pages for campaigning during election season, the city’s social media has to avoid promoting their pages.
“We won’t do anything to promote Mayor Bradburn,” Vicken said. “We won’t do anything to promote city council people. As a general ethics rule, we as a city don’t campaign for anyone.”