In Smaller Communities, Social Media Plays a Big Role

In Pennsylvania’s smaller townships, social media is filling the gap between the government and citizens.

by Tammie Gitt Carlisle, The Sentinel / February 2, 2018
Shutterstock

(TNS) — Facebook boasted 1.4 billion active users in December 2017.

Twitter has some 330 million active users.

Instagram announced last year that it had reached 800 million users.

Increasingly, social media is where conversation is happening, and some local municipalities are following the trend to better inform their residents.

The majority of Cumberland County communities do not have an official presence on social media. Those who have made the leap are finding it is a valuable tool with fewer problems than casual users of the platforms might anticipate.

Getting started

Carlisle Borough has known for a long time that it needed to be active on social media, Borough Manager Matt Candland said. Residents are not coming to meetings to ask questions so the borough had to go where they are and communicate in the way they are communicating.

“The reality is there’s a large segment of our community that communicates on social media. And, in many cases, that might be their primary source of information,” he said.

The question, though, was when would be the right time to do it.

“I think the reason most of your communities aren’t doing it is because of money. I think everyone recognizes the importance of it, but can you afford doing it?” Candland said.

Stephanie Taylor was hired in June 2017 as the borough’s public information coordinator, a position created and funded in the borough’s 2017 budget.

It may be tempting to think Taylor spends all day scanning social media, but that is only a portion of her job. She checks Facebook and Twitter first thing in the morning for news and to respond to questions and comments from the borough’s followers on those platforms. She also answers email requests through the borough’s website, updates the website, works on the borough newsletters and attends borough events and meetings.

Lower Allen Township Manager Tom Vernau said the township has been on Facebook for some time.

“We understand the power of the communication potential there,” he said.

The township has designated four people as administrators of the page, which is used to push information to residents. That includes anything the public may want to know such as events, changes to trash pickup, awards won by township employees and many other topics.

Lemoyne Borough Manager Cindy Foster, who came on board in June, said the borough started a new Facebook account after she arrived. Former Borough Councilman Mike Sadowski did most of the work in setting it up.

Generally the borough uses the account to pass along information it thinks will be of interest to its residents. For example, notices were posted recently about a detour, changes to the trash pickup schedule due to the snow and the swearing-in of new council members.

The responsibility for monitoring it falls to Foster, who said she picks up ideas about how to use the account from other municipalities.

“It’s good for us. I think we’re getting a positive response,” she said.

Though a page can be found on Facebook, Hampden Township officials made it clear it is not an official page by adding a header and post stating such to the page along with information on how to contact borough officials.

Township manager Keith Metz said that the general government does not have a presence on social media though both the police and recreation departments do. The page on Facebook had been established at some point, but changes at the township prompted them to modify the page and discontinue using it.

“From a general government standpoint, we maintain and update our website as much as possible,” Metz said.

Posting and commenting

Like other municipalities, Carlisle posts information on anything that will affect its residents. That can range from an agenda for an upcoming borough council meeting to a notice about a water main break, and many items in between. In addition, Assistant Borough Manager Susan Armstrong said the borough shares posts and information from organizations that have the support of the borough, such as the Downtown Carlisle Association.

Taylor said the borough has not seen “super negative, unruly” commenters on its pages. The borough’s policy on the management of the page is outlined on the “about” tab of its Facebook page in which it warns that comments may be deleted if they include vulgar language, personal attacks and spam or if they advocate illegal activity or compromise safety, among other considerations.

If she has to delete a comment for any of those reasons, Taylor said she keeps a screenshot of the comments so that the record is retained. Other than that, the only posts that may be deleted at a later time are posts that involve missing children who were subsequently found.

In responding to comments, Taylor said she only responds to those that ask a specific question. Otherwise, commenters are permitted to “blow off steam” as long as they are not otherwise violating the comment policy.

Comments are permitted on Lower Allen’s page, but Vernau is clear that profanity is not tolerated, nor are personal attacks. Those engaging in such language are warned, and are “kicked off” the page if they continue. That hasn’t been much of an issue, though, as most of the commenters have been good though some may use the forum for general rants against government.

“We don’t limit that debate as long as there are no personal attacks,” Vernau said.

Limits of social media

“Most people would agree that social media may not be the ideal substitute for in-person communication, but it is what’s happening,” Candland said.

One drawback is that words on a screen can’t convey the tone and inflection that would be used in regular conversation, which may lead to misunderstandings. Taylor said she tries to minimize that effect by writing the posts in as neutral and impartial a manner as possible.

That becomes particularly important when controversial issues come before the council. In those instances, social media posts are designed to share information without taking a side.

“The purpose of this is not to participate in the debate and deliberation. The purpose of it is to share information. We’re going to try and do our best — and there may be times when we’re not perfect with that — but we’re going to do our best to share information and not to take positions,” Candland said.

Armstrong said that while the borough has used its newsletter, the Carlisle Gazette, and press releases as methods of outreach, there were still deficiencies in ways to educate the public about the issues coming before the council at any given time.

“It really helped us that way, to be able to get the messages out more promptly, and to educate the public on topics of interest and concern within the community,” she said.

She also said the social media accounts will be handy when work surrounding the Carlisle Urban Redevelopment Plan moves further along, particularly as it relates to road closures.

“People are going to want to know how the borough is able to balance what we need to get done as far as infrastructure with respect to other things like Carlisle fairgrounds events,” she said.

Armstrong said the reaction to the borough’s social media accounts has been generally positive, especially in regards to response time to questions posted on the sites.

Though municipalities may have reservations about social media in general, it is a “smart” move for them to add social media to their communications toolbox, Vernau said.

“The balancing act that we walk is that we have residents of all ages,” he said.

Facebook is the primary means by which the municipality reaches younger generations, but Vernau acknowledges the popularity of Twitter and Instagram among those residents. Old people, while active to a degree on social media, are more inclined to be reached through the township’s robocall system or the township website.

Candland said there have been no drawbacks and no regrets to the borough’s decision to jump into the social media fray.

“It was to hopefully be beneficial to the community and be another way citizens can be informed of what’s going on, so we hope it’s accomplishing that,” he said.

©2018 The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.