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Counties’ Fear of Social Media…But Need Not Be

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.

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Profile Photo Andrew Krzmarzick

So many nuggets here, Lori. My favorites:

– “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.

– “Florida has been hit hard by the recession and housing collapse…Since 2007, budget discussions have become a nasty affair. So, last year, we embarked on a “listening” campaign. // Nice!

– Google Voice…Last year’s budget outlined possible cuts to our Aging Services Department…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, our Google voice number…transcribes the message while keeping the actual recorded voice message, too.

Wow…I could re-post so many more…awesome stuff!

Profile Photo Justin Mosebach

Lori,

How did you convince others in Hillsborough County government to let you experiment with social media? Was it a tough task? Any advice to those in local government who are trying to do the same?

Thanks,
Justin

Profile Photo Lori Hudson

Hi Justin,
Good question!!
We were fortunate to have a newly elected Commissioner who utilized social media in his campaign a la Obama-style. He knew the benefits, and we pulled him in early in our discussions as our best ally. Also, five of our seven Commissioners face an election of some sort this November and March, so, needless to say, they saw it as being in their best interest.

More difficult was getting our IT and HR people on board. Both groups are very conservative, and IT had to be convinced this is happening with us or without us. By asking IT to pull the logs of sites visited by our employees, they realized very quickly that usage was huge during county hours (and not for county work!) I convinced them that having a policy would bring order to what we were saying online and who was to say it.

So…big lessons…show it’s already in use; get an ally or two with some power behind them; and from a public information standpoint, explain that it’s not that different from other communications tools. It’s still all about telling your story, no matter what medium you use.

Profile Photo Leigh-Ann

Hey Lori, thanks for posting this up, I think alot of us are in the “same boat” here to get our organizations onboard with using social media or web 2.0 solutions to collaborate instead of working in silos! On this note have your ever checked out the Collaboration Project online? Its great becuase it lists alot of past performance cases of government organizations using social media, like wikis, blogs, etc. Its good to use in a pinch when you need to do PR or sell the whole concept to more conservative leadership. Another good strategy is is always offer resources on how to train other new technology and social this around the office so people don’t feel overwhelmed by it.

Just some food for thought,
Leigh-Ann

Profile Photo Lori Hudson

Leigh-Ann,
Thank you!!! I am always looking for resources, and I am excited to check out the Collaboration Project for cases and ideas.
You’re exactly right about the training aspect and sharing with others so they can become comfortable with the new medium. We need to encourage more folks to test drive.
Thanks again,
Lori

Profile Photo Tom Le Veque

Congrats Lori! Nice summary article. We have also had good experiences in entering the social media world but on a smaller scale. As to comments and offering another venue for naysayers and negativity, it has been my experience that this type of participation is negligible. Most comments on our sites and others have been positive or associated to a question or perception of the way we conduct business. Interacting with the person who posts or tweets about your agency is a good thing. If we use social media as a conversation and communicate with folks, opiions and thoughts are exchanged usually resulting in something positive. This does not take the place of face to face business and communication but rather offers an option not really available to our community in the past.

Profile Photo Jill Parker

Lori,

Thank you so much for this post. I work for a health department in Northern Utah and we too have had wonderful results using social media. We cover a large geographical area and this has created a way to talk to community members in the rural portions of our district. Thanks again!

Profile Photo Lori Hudson

Jill,
Thanks for your post. I’m glad to hear social media has yielded positives for your department. Sometimes I wonder if we’re (government) not giving our citizens enough credit for connecting with us in these new and exciiting ways. I’ve only heard good things so far.
Take Care,
Lori

Profile Photo Christina Morrison

Great post Lori! This is a great example for agencies, both big and small, of the impact social media can have. Larger government agencies can use social media to reach audiences spread throughout the country, in the same way that your site opened up to interactions from citizens spread across your county.

There is still a lot of apprehension about starting a social media campaign, but I think the research from your I.T. department says a lot: most employees are already familiar with social media sites and use them heavily, so the transition to using them for work purposes can be accelerated. The fear that social media will take too much time out of your day is more than countered by the increase in successful communication with your constituents.

Profile Photo Roger White

Lori – hi, first you welcome me then I saw your excellent post from back in June about social media. I live in the UK and was made redundant (do you use that jargon in the States – if not I guess you’ll know what it means) earlier this year. I am now running my own small company and as a result of my own experience looked at local government’s use of Twitter in my own country. I wrote this up and would be happy to send any GovLoop member a copy from my work e-mail address – . I’ve included some recommendations for British local government about Twitter and would be interested to know if our experience mirrors yours (your county is far ahead of the British average I should add). The only international feedback I’ve had so far is from someone who works for a mid-size Canadian City and their experience is very similar to the British.

Profile Photo Roger White

OK – see my comment below – I’ve just learnt your forums don’t like e-mail addresses, at least not in the form I wrote mine, so if anyone wants the report contact me via GovLoop. Thanks.