In a word…fear.
That about sums up most local government leaders and their thoughts about the use of social media. As the government with the closest proximity to the public it serves, a lot of my peers worry about opening up another dialogue venue. Many aren’t familiar with social media sites and can’t envision what can be accomplished through this form of communication. I’ve had several well-meaning people tell me they will “watch and see how it works out for” us first. As an optimist who sees social media as a great opportunity, it feels like being the first person on the block to own one of those new-fangled television sets.
Entering social media a year ago was a natural step for Hillsborough County, Florida.
Public information is key to any good county operation. It is two-way, transparent, reaches everyone, is constant, should be trustworthy, helps build consensus in the community and promotes democracy. Local government has its share of critics, to be sure. But, social media is helpful to communicate with naysayers because it’s not commercialized, and is often passed from one person to another. It builds a trust factor. It’s a community within your community.
I will be sharing our social media experiences July 18 at the National Association of Counties conference because it’s time local governments embrace social media without fear and trembling. All we need is education and a respect for the medium. I’m happy to share our experiences in Hillsborough County (Tampa Bay). Most people I meet think sites like Facebook and Blogger are ripe for airing gripes. That’s not really been the case with us. We get a few grumpy writers, but we answer them courteously, and they can’t say we’re “hiding” anything. And, when we do answer…because it goes out for everyone to see…it invites dialogue with citizens.
Our County Center is downtown in a county that is almost 1,100 square miles…it’s a pain to park and it costs money. People have busy lives and they don’t want to be saddled with taking time off from work to support or oppose a zoning case, or complain about a county service. With social media sites, our County is open 24/7 and available from a citizen’s laptop or cell phone.
So, we began our pilot social media project last summer. Florida has been hit hard by the recession and housing collapse. Even before that, the Governor campaigned to double the homestead exemptions and property taxes have greatly decreased. Since 2007, budget discussions have become a nasty affair. So, last year, we embarked on a “listening” campaign.
Our first venture was with Twitter, and it was a hit with citizens. We found a secondary benefit using Twitter…the Media subscribe, and they love the short messages instead of lengthy press releases. Every month, we get positive news coverage from our Tweets.
YouTube was a perfect extension when our county’s television station faced an identity crisis. HTV used to be on basic cable…channel 22. Then our cable company put us in the 600s…622 to be exact. So, we’ve rebranded our TV station to be an online station as well, with streaming video and video on demand. YouTube is ideal for government’s short videos and public service announcements to tout county services.
Google Voice added a new layer, and it has saved us a great deal of time and money. Last year’s budget outlined possible cuts to our Aging Services Department…namely the Alzheimer’s Day Care program. When word got out, hundreds of seniors dialed in to a hotline to voice support the program. Staff worked for hours transcribing the messages.
Today, we have our Google voice number. It uses voice recognition software to transcribe the message while keeping the actual recorded voice message, too. I love it and wonder how we ever lived without it!
We use Facebook as a part of our public meeting notice procedures and to promote events and services. We found the key to Facebook was to set up our account for Fans, not Friends.
Blogger was at the heart of our social media experience. As I mentioned, we wanted a dialogue with citizens about the budget…what they thought we should fund, what we shouldn’t, what we should consider privatizing or handing off to non-profits.
Blogger allows anyone to read a question and post their thoughts. We adopted a moderated approach to our Blogger site, and put our groundrules prominently on our page. A writer submits their thoughts for posting. If it’s in line with our ground rules, the moderator posts it. We’ve gotten very good responses with creative budget ideas. Only one post so far has been turned down, because it was a personal attack on a Commissioner. Which we say is a no-no in our groundrules.
That doesn’t mean we get all bouquets though. In fact, some are not positive, but we respond back with important information in a friendly way so they know we are reading their thoughts, and we’re educating citizens at the same time.
Before we created any of our social media pages, our first step was to develop a policy to cover who can and who can’t use social media. We discovered from our I.T. department that our employees were already well acquainted with social media, visiting such sites during work hours as Facebook, My Space, Linked In, Classmates.com, Snapfish, Digg, Flickr…even a blog site for firefighters over 40!
So, who does speak for us? Our policy also makes sure staff identify themselves properly, don’t use slang or jargon and speak courteously. We have staff monitor the sites daily so we can respond quickly. And, the very nature of social media draws out questions from the public…so make sure you know who will respond beforehand.
Laying the groundrules was actually the hardest part for us. There are very few counties in social media with policies that could be shared with us. It is the federal government has led the way with social media. We researched many policies from the USDA, the Coast Guard and others and then put our own together.
Take your time…and approach one social medium at a time. Learn it and get comfortable with it. We found out what we liked best and what wouldn’t work for us before we set up any sites. Our social media program has been gradual.
The only downside I’ve witnessed is that social media is a very hungry beast and needs updating all the time. A stale site doesn’t get viewers and Fans can “unfan” you if they think there’s nothing there for them. I am reorganizing our department so that I have one full time Social Media person on staff.
As I’ve said, it’s here for the long-haul. Social Media is growing at an astronomical pace…not just here in the United States but all over the world. I remember the days of typing press releases and mailing them. And, boy was I excited when I saw the first fax machine. Email has put the fax machine into mothballs. And, social media is like email on a global stage open for all to see.
Who knows what’s next? I can’t wait.