The city of Roseville, Calif., didn’t really ban dancing last year -- but that was the story rapidly spreading through local online forums and social networks. Luckily, the city was paying attention. Roseville e-government administrator Lon Peterson regularly monitors social media activity, and moved quickly to squelch the rumor -- the city even went so far as to organize a community dance event at a municipal park.

The tale stemmed from a zoning dispute between the city and a local restaurant, which the city claimed was operating a dance club too close to a residential area. As the information traveled across the Internet, the story took on a life of its own, drawing comments from as far away as the Netherlands.

“It definitely got out there very quickly,” says Peterson.

It didn’t help that the incident coincided with the 2011 remake of Footloose, the classic 1984 film starring Kevin Bacon as a city kid who moves to a small town and challenges its ban on dancing. Soon headlines like “Footloose in Roseville?” were popping up everywhere.

Using city Twitter and Facebook accounts, Peterson told individual posters that Roseville simply was enforcing zoning laws found in most cities, and he provided links to city-prepared fact sheets denying that Roseville had any communitywide ban on dancing. The quick response helped nip the rumor in the bud, he says. “As we made the case, most everybody that we responded to said, ‘Oh, OK,’ and that was it.”

The episode -- as nutty as it sounds -- offers a cautionary tale for public officials who think social media has little to do with the business of governing. In an era where citizens routinely use online reviews and comments to make decisions and form opinions, Peterson says cities can’t ignore their online image.

Roseville, an affluent Sacramento suburb, launched its social media accounts several years ago and now operates a main city Facebook page, along with separate pages covering topics like parks, libraries and utilities. The city also has several Twitter accounts.

Peterson uses a popular app called Hootsuite to simplify management of the multiple Facebook and Twitter accounts, and to track mentions of the city on those networks. To avoid public records issues, social media messages almost always link back to documents or news releases archived on the city website.

Besides protecting Roseville’s online brand, its social media activity has been a great source of citizen feedback, both positive and negative. Even critical comments overwhelmingly are constructive, Peterson adds. But cities also must understand the commitment they’re making before they open any social media accounts. Social media users expect near-instant response to questions or comments, so building a city Facebook page that’s never checked probably does more harm than good for your online reputation.

Roseville created a nine-person social media working group, made up of individuals from city government, to ensure questions and comments are addressed within hours instead of days. Peterson carries an iPad almost everywhere in case an issue demands immediate attention. “If you’re going to be there,” he says, “you need to actively listen and respond.”

But don’t expect social media users to stop talking about your town just because you’re not part of the conversation. “People are going to talk about you whether you’re there or not,” Peterson says. As more citizens get news and form opinions through online chatter, cities may find they can’t afford to sit these discussions out.

This column originally was published in the August 2012 issue of GOVERNING magazine.

Steve Towns, Editor Steve Towns  |  Editor

Steve Towns is editor of Government Technology, and executive editor for e.Republic Inc., publisher of GOVERNING, Government TechnologyPublic CIO and Emergency Management magazines. He has more than 20 years of writing and editing experience at newspapers and magazines, including more than 15 years of covering technology in the state and local government market.