In its early days, social media represented little more than a way to waste time and piss off taxpayers in the public sector. Forward-thinking local governments were often hampered by city leaders who didn't understand the value of social media or why a city employee should spend time to develop it. For these people, having a city website was generally enough.
But as time has shown, the value of social media is in the engagement it offers with sections of the community that might not otherwise attend a council meeting or public hearing. It provides a clear channel for two-way communication between cities and those they represent.
At the Government Social Media Conference held in Reno, Nev., in early April, Timothy Martin, Roanoke, Va.'s communication and media coordinator, shared his experiences and offered four tips for success in engaging the public through thoughtful campaigns across multiple platforms.
One issue that many cities face is a lack of cohesive branding when it comes to their public-facing social media accounts.
While the city of Roanoke had established accounts several years before Martin arrived in 2013, they lacked citizen engagement and a cohesive vision for the larger organization. A major weather event offered the opportunity to collaborate and connect with the public where it mattered.
“When I started at the city, there really wasn’t a defined role in what I would do in social media,” he said. “There was a scattered approach, and what I mean by that is all of the different departments were doing all different types of things. There was no coordination and nobody was talking to anybody.”
An impending snowstorm offered the opportunity to start internal conversations and kicked off what would become one of the local government’s more successful online campaigns.
Rather than relying on information delivery alone, Martin said city staff worked to engage with constituents in a personal way, while mixing in vital information about city services.
“This was the first time that we really coordinated with all of the other social media departments in the city," he said. "We got everyone together and basically said, ‘Here’s the plan: We’re going to be the base of information, and your job is going to be to share and really follow in our footsteps in terms of this weather event.”
A concerted effort allowed the various departments to reach their respective audiences and share information from other departments that might have otherwise gone unseen.
The use of lighthearted content from the public allowed the city to route traffic to important information over the course of the four-day storm.
“It was huge. It worked very well for us,” Martin said. “It also allowed us to interact with citizens, which is something we had not done a lot of.”
The city of Roanoke has roughly 136,000 followers dispersed over its 45 pages, while its main Facebook page boasts nearly 63,000 followers.
Martin said much of the city’s online success comes from treating every day like a social media campaign and highlighting the things that drew residents to the area in the first place, like the brilliant fall colors.
Additionally, he said, after-hours engagement has helped to solidify the city as not only a trusted source of information, but a source for entertainment as well.
A photoshopped image of Santa and his reindeer flying past the Roanoke Star monument on Christmas Eve reached more than 600,000 people and garnered nearly 30,000 comments, likes and shares.
When a national or international event occurs, Martin said it is important to address it and let the public discuss what has happened.
Following the terrorist attack in Paris on Nov. 13, 2015, Martin said a post about changing the city’s iconic star monument to the colors of the French flag garnered substantial conversation and an outlet for the public to mourn.
The Aug. 26, 2015 shooting of reporter Allison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward also rocked the community and required a sensitive approach from city officials online.
“We have seen that responding to tragedies has been very important for our community," he said. "It certainly gives them an avenue to talk about things and brings people together."
Though he said major incidents should not be viewed as an opportunity to engage or collect followers, they become a sort of unexpected campaign that must be handled delicately and tactfully.
Instead of the usual 10 to 20 daily posts, Martin said the city’s main account scaled back to allow social media users to react to what had happened.
“With tragedies, we really tone down the posts, the things that we post about. We kind of go silent.” he said. “You’ll see a few posts about the tragedy depending on what the community is doing and what type of events are going on.”
According to Martin, government organizations should not shy away from using humor in their daily interactions with constituents.
“I would tell anybody who is questioning campaign humor on Facebook as a local government: It is OK,” he said.
Using opportunities like April Fool’s Day is a valuable tool to draw eyes to city platforms and kick off impromptu conversation. Martin said one such effort included informing residents the city’s iconic star would be relocated. Another centered on a fake bid to make Roanoke the home of the 2026 Olympics.
While he said local governments are sure to get plenty of page views with funny initiatives, some criticism is also likely to follow.
“I’m not saying you won’t get criticized for doing something like this, because the No. 1 criticism for doing something like this will be, ‘My taxpayer dollars are going to you to sit in your office and create photoshopped pictures all day.’” Martin said. "But, more times than not, you’ll have people who are going to defend you on Facebook than will talk bad or against you.”