Rumors get squashed and the relentless voices of online trolls get countered by facts in a new take on government public relations.
The Internet, specifically social media, changed the way local governments and their residents interact. On one hand, the instant connection can mean the positive exchange of ideas and opinions. On the other, popular online networks are the perfect incubator for bad information and nasty rumors.
Like most cities, Glendale, Calif., has been on both sides of this digital predicament. But unlike many other cities, they get ahead of problems and shut them down before things have a chance to get out of hand.
When a major California newspaper incorrectly reported that the city was ticketing residents for browning lawns despite crippling drought conditions in the state, it ignited a firestorm on social media — and a tsunami of angry calls and emails to the city.
Within an hour of the article being corrected online, communications director Tom Lorenz said the city stopped the misinformation crisis through a rumor control system that is gaining traction around the country.
Staff immediately reposted the corrected article to their popular social media accounts and teased a full explanation in the city’s “rumor page,” a portal dedicated to dispelling misinformation.
By leveraging the city’s well-established online presence and developing the Web page aimed solely at stopping rumors in their tracks, Lorenz said directing residents to the credible information is no longer an uphill battle.
“The biggest issue in government is trying to deal with a situation that you weren’t prepared for and then you find yourself tending to react,” he told Government Technology. “What we try to do here is eliminate that and try to get ahead of the picture. Much like if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.”
While using social media in a public relations capacity is nothing new, using it aggressively in conjunction with a rumor page is. Lorenz said the combination has been a huge success since the page launched in 2012.
Lorenz, who spent much of his career in law enforcement, brings a proactive set of crisis management skills to the city’s top communications position.
“When situations go awry, it’s normally because someone out there misinterprets something or purposely wants to attack the city or city council, and they put out misinformation,” he said. “Depending on the topic, it really can spin out of control in a very short period of time, and most government agencies haven’t put themselves into a position to be able to respond quickly.”
The ability to respond quickly boils down to building the relationship between social media platforms and other online assets, like the main city website.
Coordination among city departments is key as well. In Lorenz’s case, 14 city departments, including police and fire, needed to be aligned for maximum effect.
By using social media as a tool to drive people to the wealth of resources on a city website, Lorenz said organizations can supply online conversations with factual information.
But the communications director also warns that not all chatter is worth taking on. He said to understand what will have an impact and what won’t, you first have to understand who is behind the misinformation and the virtual “village” they come from.
Lorenz said that while many social media networkers will stop spreading bad information once they are offered the alternative, there are trolls who cannot be convinced and may have a following of supporters who lash out when challenged.
“There are times where people will say things and you have to step back and say, ‘There is no reason to go to war with them because people acknowledge and understand who they really are,’” he said.
According to the communications director, his program doesn’t take a large staff to run. In Glendale, three key staff members keep the daily public information department going, while others work on things like the GTV6, the city’s Emmy-winning government access channel, and the city’s graphic design needs.
Since launching the program, Lorenz said other local governments have taken notice. While he could not say for certain whether Glendale was the first city with the rumor-control strategy, he is certain it won’t be the last.