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Social Media Directors are Finding a Place in Government

Governments try out new media directors to handle social networking on their behalf.

From the White House to New York City to small cities and counties, people are being hired to focus on how social media strategies and efforts can best be used by government to interact with the public.

And Generation Y — a.k.a. Millennials — are the preferred choice for these positions. Their comfort level with social media and Web-based communications tools, for instance, provides a welcome change for state and local governments that rely solely on old-fashioned public outreach methods.

Social media or new media directors are fairly new in government, but their numbers are growing at all levels — and these positions are primarily being filled by individuals born in the mid-1970s and later.

Immersed in Social Media

In 2009, Oak Park, Ill., added social media to its outreach activities. Home to about 52,000 residents, the village started using Twitter and Facebook to communicate with constituents. “We thought that if the importance is really to communicate with the community, then that means being able to use the same tools that the community is relying on for information,” said David Powers, Oak Park’s communications director.

Powers didn’t have to look far to find a social media maven; his communications assistant, Leslie Boehms, had a background in print journalism that gave her insight into traditional communications methods — but she also grew up using social media. “I went from Friendster to Myspace to Facebook,” said the 29-year-old. “So I’ve always been kind of immersed in social media.”

For the last three years, Boehms has led Oak Park’s online social efforts as communications and social media director. She is a liaison between the social pages and the government agencies that hold the answers to residents’ questions. Oak Park has a YouTube channel, but primarily uses its Twitter account and Facebook page for citizen interaction. If someone tweets or posts a question that Boehms doesn’t know the answer to, she reaches out to the appropriate department. (The village has single Facebook and Twitter accounts, instead of separate pages for individual departments.)

Government doesn’t have a great reputation for customer service, but social media helps reverse that notion. “You want to get back to [citizens] as quickly as you can,” Boehms said. Due to the real-time nature of social media, Powers has worked to change attitudes internally. During the village’s staff meetings, for instance, he reinforces the importance of answering his or Boehms’ questions within minutes or a couple of hours at the longest. “There’s an expectation when people post a question — they expect a quick answer,” he said.

This can be tough during the weekend, but social media is a 24/7 platform. Boehms is notified if someone posts on the Facebook page and if she doesn’t have the answer to a question, she replies with: “We’ll check first thing Monday and get back to you.” It’s important to acknowledge the question, she said, even if it takes her until the workweek to get the answer.

It’s also important to remember that social media isn’t replacing other forms of public outreach. Traditional methods like newsletters and press releases allow issues to be explored in-depth and lend themselves better to being sent out in advance of something happening. Announcements can be condensed for posting on Facebook and Twitter, and Powers said social media is effective at disseminating information before an event or as it’s happening. “What it has allowed us to do in a lot of ways is communicate the same message, but in a timelier fashion,” he said.

Chicago-Style Communications

Directly to the east and less than 10 miles from Oak Park is Chicago. The Windy City is taking an alternative approach to social media: Different departments and agencies have created their own social media accounts, but the city is working with all of them to coordinate the approach. Kevin Hauswirth is the social media director for the Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and he works to leverage social media to engage the public around the mayor’s decisions. Besides monitoring conversations on numerous platforms — including Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Foursquare — on a daily basis, he uses social media to get public feedback before decisions are made on the city budget and other matters.

To coordinate with the other social media account users in Chicago government, Hauswirth (age 28) gathers everyone for discussions and workshops. At a recent workshop, Hauswirth discussed what was happening in the mayor’s office and his deputy demonstrated new tools for managing social media. Additionally representatives from Chicago Public Schools talked about how they engage bloggers, and someone from the Transit Authority discussed the launch of its first Twitter feed.

“The best practices are coming out of shared common knowledge of what is working and what is not working,” said Hauswirth, whose background in higher education and teaching helps him in his role of educating others about social media and explaining its value. “It’s really less about the technology and more about the relationships — and that’s really what we’re focusing on,” he said.

New Media in the Tar Heel State

In September 2010, Ben Niolet joined North Carolina as the state’s director of new media. Charged by Gov. Bev Purdue to broaden the reach of the state’s messaging, he’s using social media to expand North Carolina’s communications footprint. Niolet, 36, considers his role with the state similar to his former job as a reporter and blogger. “I already communicated online, and when you are talking about new media, you are still in the business of content creation,” he said.

In addition to popular social media platforms, North Carolina has used other online strategies to elicit public interaction. When faced with eliminating a $2.5 billion deficit in the state budget, North Carolina rolled out an online, interactive game-like platform to let residents choose different options for closing the gap. Niolet said the game was played about 40,000 times in the first two days it went live. “I really think it helped start a conversation about the budget and about what difficult choices have to be made to balance a budget,” he said.

And creating conversations is what the social media and new media directors are aiming for. Boehms, Hauswirth and Niolet said they measure success not by the number of followers, but by the level of interaction from the public. Having thousands of followers may look good on a Facebook page, but the key is having active users who know they will get a response from government officials if they ask a question.

The directors also watch what the other directors are doing and keep in touch. Although they haven’t formed an official, organized group, they share lessons learned and follow one another online. But they may not be called “social media” and “new media directors” for long — once these forms of communication become one of government’s standard outreach platforms, they won’t require a separate voice.

“I don’t think that you will need the advocating as much as we go forward, it is just part of how we do communications,” Niolet said. “You wouldn’t hire someone to just write press releases.” 

Elaine Pittman is the former managing editor of Emergency Management magazine.