Governments trying to click with social media

Cities and counties report mixed satisfaction with the online venues. Conversations can easily become minefields.

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Gail Plewacki didn’t think Dakota County’s Facebook page was worth the trouble.

The county’s communications chief tried to make it work — a couple of times. But after six months, one of them had 75 fans, most of them with official connections to the Women, Infants, and Children public health program it promoted.

“We maybe had six people who could’ve been the target audience,” Plewacki said. And it took time to oversee. The lesson: “People go to social media to do social stuff, not to find out that breastfeeding is good for your baby.”

Joyce Lorenz, her counterpart in Eden Prairie, feels differently. She oversees an award-winning Facebook page that averages nearly 1,200 active users per day, and half a million views in the course of a year.

“The whole purpose of Facebook is to engage the community,” she said. “This is the only platform we have to do that, because the website is all one-way.” She’s referring to the city’s main website, where the city talks to readers, but readers can’t talk back.

A year or two into most attempts to shake up the often stultifying world of government communication by launching a new era of instant, real-time notes to citizens, cities and counties are finding that social media is a tricky arena, with tremendous rewards when it works but with a huge array of hiccups:

• A Lakeville council member shoots out a snarky tweet attacking his colleagues, angering them and leading to moves to set new rules.

• A Facebook entry from the Scott County Sheriff’s Office reporting a drug bust yields derisive comments from citizens, right out in public.

• Shakopee publicly chastises a citizen, claiming she’s trying to use the city’s social media to promote her own business. And the citizen turns out to be a chum of the man who’s about to become the mayor.

“This is an extremely important way for people to communicate with the city,” said Shakopee’s mayor-elect, Brad Tabke. “But the city is extremely restrictive right now as to what can be said — and the site is little used. It needs to reflect that human beings work for the city and there needs to be human communication. The way it’s set up now, it doesn’t do that.”

But the city next door has found it slow going, even when it tries to lure folks in.

“I’ve gone on and thrown questions out there on topics we think they feel strongly about,” including roundabout construction that was causing detours, said Savage’s communications specialist, Amy Barnett, “and I got nothing.”

The more free-swinging a Facebook page is, the more folks will use it; but equally, that’s when cities get nervous and the page starts becoming a serious drain on time.

“Has it taken off to [the] extent I thought it might?” said Barnett. “No. But in a way that’s partly due to the fact that we cannot stay on top of it like people might expect us to. To be effective, we’d need be on it constantly and we don’t have the resources to do that.”

Potential pitfalls

In hopes of keeping things from getting downright ugly, cities often have policies against vituperation and blatant politicking. But to restrict what can be said invites criticism.

“This site is paid for/managed by tax payers  of Prior Lake,” a citizen’s post last fall on that city’s Facebook page exclaimed. “Please leave our comments here on the site, or remove it entirely! Stop removing comments!”

Mike Peterson, the city’s communications person, says he’s mystified.

“There are only two other people with access to that site and all claim they didn’t remove any remarks,” he said. “I chalked it off to an error on the writer’s part.” (The writer didn’t respond to a Facebook note from the Star Tribune).

Lakeville is struggling with a new policy on electronic communication that would cover e-mailing or tweeting during or after City Council meetings.

“I have no problem with the use of [social media] in getting information out that is useful to the city,” said first-term Council Member Colleen LaBeau. “I do have a problem” when a colleague is tweeting his views to the world right in the middle of a meeting.

That would mean Council Member Matt Little, 28, who said he has e-mailed or tweeted only once during an informal work session. He said that tweet (only 140 characters fit in a tweet) noted that findings of a city liquor store study supported his view that it was a valuable business for the city to continue operating.

Little uses Facebook and Twitter regularly after council meetings to keep residents informed, especially about work sessions, which aren’t videotaped, as are City Council meetings. He recently tweeted about a work session in which the council discussed increasing its own expense allowance by $250 each, about two weeks after they voted to lay off the city’s last electrical inspector to save money.

“Most of what I tweet is things I have said at the meetings,” Little said. “If [council] people are uncomfortable with being held accountable, that’s on them. These are disagreements on issues, not personal attacks … It’s not for some council members to limit the communication to the public of other council members. It’s about discretion and using our best judgment.”

Little, who has announced that he’s running against Mayor Mark Bellows in next fall’s election, has also seized on Twitter as a campaign device, often criticizing the mayor.

“Mayor votes himself an inc. in compensation, says he hasn’t had a raise in 10 yrs Wrong that taxpayers should pay us more in these times,” went one recent tweet. “Mayor not happy with being held accountable,” went another, which linked to an article about the compensation issue.

In short, it’s a volatile new world whose rules are only beginning to be written and rewritten as new experience illustrates new possibilities and new dangers.

The upside is that social media can turn a remote and distant city hall into something more like a chatty neighbor, both confiding and listening. Said Tabke:

“We need to be more like Eden Prairie, where even the police chief has a blog. We need to let people with a question or concern address those to us from bed at 10:30 at night with a laptop and not have to wait till opening hours.”

As for tweeting during a meeting?  “Not smart,” Tabke said. “That defies decorum.” Eagan Mayor Mike Maguire, an active user of social media, agrees. “It’s potentially distracting from what I’m engaged in,” he said.

Finding what works

It seems clear by now that social media efforts for government activities that directly affect lots of residents, such as plowing, are going to be the best-used, while those for programs more remote from the average person’s experience are more of a challenge. That may mean that cities are best positioned, while counties — except for parks and libraries — will have a more difficult time.

Dakota County plans to try again on Facebook, launching pages for the library system and parks department next year. The library’s conventional Web pages draw more than 1.5 million page views annually.

The notion is for a page that might feature book discussions or reviews, or a parks page with real-time updates on trail conditions. There could be live online chats.

“It’s new and there’s still more to learn,” Plewacki said. “We’re not going to just do it to do it.”
Each type of media has its own best function, said Eagan’s Maguire.

“While I use Facebook to communicate with constituents, I do not engage with constituents on controversial issues or use it to seek out input on deliberations that I or the council are working on. We have meetings, hearings, e-mail and the ability to schedule meetings for such discussions and I find it a difficult medium … to truly engage a dialogue.”

That may be, said Eden Prairie’s Lorenz, but a lot of cities just don’t want their own communications channel to become a magnet for complaints, she said.

“The main things that keep cities from doing this is the fear of how much time it will take and the fear of getting negative comments,” Lorenz said. Eden Prairie finds that a quick answer to a negative comment stops the complaining.

“We respond. We apologize if we did something wrong. If they bring up something that isn’t actually true we correct it.”

Last President’s Day, when city employees were off for the holiday, there was an 18- or 19-inch snowfall. Residents began posting complaints that their streets weren’t plowed yet. “Once people saw other people complaining, it kind of snowballed. They kept adding and adding on.

“So I looked into it and figured out why” the plows were late, she said. The plowing staff had been up all night dealing with the storm. “Once we put something out there apologizing that it was taking so long,” and assuring people that the plows were coming, the posts stopped and “nobody complained anymore.”

The two-way communication is what makes it most valuable to the city, Lorenz said.

“It’s about interaction and you have to take the bad with the good. And bad isn’t necessarily bad because it could be an issue that we wouldn’t have found out about otherwise.” 

dapeterson@startribune.com • 952-746-3285 katie.humphrey@startribune.com • 952-746-3286 jim.adams@startribune.com • 952-746-3283 laurie.blake@startribune.com • 952-746-3287

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