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Is Social Media Useful for Engaging Your Constituents?

Town hall meetings, Twitter, hotlines, e-mail… The list of potential lines of communication goes on. There are more open lines of communication between agencies and the citizens they serve than ever before. Since the advent of the Internet, they are constantly evolving, particularly social media, to better serve the public will. But are we better served, or do many of them fall flat?

Twitter, for example, limits tweets to 140 characters, making it difficult to produce meaningful dialogue between the citizen and agency worker. However, as I can personally attest to, some organizations will quickly put you on the phone with someone who can help after they notice a negative tweet. The organizations that do that are doing a great job at utilizing social media, but if I end up on the phone with them anyway, shouldn’t I have just called in the first place? I have also found that it’s often only possible to be helped in person. In the end, I may as well have just went to the office and straightened everything out right then and there, in person.

There is no doubt, in my opinion, that platforms such as Twitter are useful for one way communication. It’s great that I can follow an agency on Twitter and instantly have access to their latest happenings. The question is whether or not social media is as effective for dialogue as many will argue.

How many different methods of communication are necessary to serve people? Do you find that many of the problems that your constituents face can be solved via social media, and therefore it is an important medium to use?

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Emily Landsman

I think they all have a place in constituent communications. Not everyone uses every platform, so you’ll reach different people on each. Something like Facebook might be good for broad communications with someone who might not otherwise interact with their government. In my work with county governments, my response to “why should we use social media?” was “because your constituents are using it.”

If someone receives a quick reply or phone contact after a negative Tweet, great! That means they’re monitoring and responding to a concern. If you didn’t call to voice your concern, well, then you shouldn’t expect to hear anything at all. What if you don’t know who you need to call to have your question answered? Trying to have a question answered in a small government office with a limited staff can be a whole lot harder than you’d imagine! Having a number of social media contact options can be helpful to give everyone a way to interact with government, assuming they are reviewed on a regular basis.

Corey McCarren

That’s a great answer to the question “why should we use social media?”, Emily. Do you find that social media takes up a lot of resources for small government offices, or that it frees up resources by being able to respond on your own time in ways that don’t require sustained attention, such as answering a phone?

Emily Landsman

Robert, because Facebook and Twitter have no actual dollar cost, the only thing you’d pay for is the staff time to monitor them. If it takes 4 minutes for someone to speak to a caller and they get that call 5 times a day, that’s 20 minutes, versus just a few seconds to reply via a social media outlet. Plus, because the information is now available, you can cut down on the number of times that same question is asked. Staff time is saved, so cost is lowered. Residents like having the additional contact methods.

Another important point to remember is to create a social media plan, or incorporate it into your overall media plan. Corey it sounds like you and I are on the same page on this one. (See my post from this morning here) From what I’ve seen, smaller governments that start with a plan have had great success with it. It does free up staff time.

(Last year I actually worked as a consultant with a city here in VA as they considered a 311 type system for their transportation and environmental services department….we found that the staff spent a lot of time on answering the same questions day after day that could easily be addressed using other methods.)