Reaching Millions: How a Small Kansas City Used Social Media to Help Heal Tensions

What does an internet superstar look like?

Maybe it’s Justin Bieber hitting high notes on his YouTube page to get discovered by a global audience. Or a Harlem Shake flash mob taking over Union Station.

You might not think of Lenexa, Kansas, police officers in this same category. And yet, after a small herd of cows got loose onto the interstate, millions flocked to the scene – online.

“We were able to put some twangy music to that, create a lighthearted feel, and put that out, and it ended up reaching almost 8 million people,” Kristen Waggener, formerly the Communications Specialist for the city of Lenexa, said.

In years past, a mid-America driver stuck in the unusual post-rush hour gridlock would have had a heck of a story to tell at the dinner table. But Dec. 4, 2014, in the era of social media, the moment of chaos – cows running down and across the interstate trailed by a police car, like a border collie, ushering them into a nearby pasture – was captured by a traffic light camera.

Waggener saw an opportunity, during a time of racial and community discord sowed by a spate of police shootings, to share a feel-good story that could gain some attention highlighting positive – and comical – actions of police officers in the community.

And the post spread quickly. The video was viewed 2.7 million times on Facebook and nearby news outlets aired the footage. It has been shared over 52,000 times, a number higher than Lenexa’s population at the time.

For Waggener, as the social media director for Lenexa, it was a happy and proud moment. But the video, and social media posts in government generally, do far more than offer rosy feelings.

As the Lenexa video was going viral, community emotions were still boiling over following the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, in Ferguson, Missouri, under murky circumstances.

The comments section of the Lenexa video reveals the tension and cynicism of the time, with “Hooves up, don’t shoot” and other Ferguson-themed comments popping up.

Disconnect between local communities and police forces can hamper criminal investigations. To build more trust, many police departments have adopted so-called community policing policies, a strategy whereby officers establish themselves as approachable, assistive resources.

“Our police department definitely is always looking for ways to be able to humanize and reach out to the community and connect with them, so that people do feel comfortable reaching out to them when they need help, because police officers are not supposed to be scary,” Waggener said. “They’re not supposed to be intimidating for people. They’re community resources, and they want to be there for the community when they need them.”

Social media isn’t just an additional medium where governments can air funny videos. Now, it’s a form of two-way communication and a crucial platform for public messaging.

At the time of the interview, Waggener said 60% of her job was related to social media. Responsibilities included coordinating between departments, crafting content to promote events and creating official social media policies for the city. For example, Waggener made a point to address any question posed to the city government on social media within 24 hours.

Different cities have different tones in their social media presence, Waggener said, something that she is familiar with from serving as the Midwest representative for the Government Social Media Organization. Lenexa, known as the “City of Festivals,” uses its 15 social media profiles to promote the more than 20 events it hosts every year.

“We have to go where the people are. We can’t expect them to come to us,” Waggener said.

This article is an excerpt from GovLoop’s recent guide, “Intelligent Innovation: Tech Trends Taking Root in State and Local Governments.” Download the full guide here.

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