The city’s use of social media and other communication channels has netted it the first-ever Sharman Stein Award for Storytelling Changemakers from Results for America, the lead What Works Cities partner.
Arlington, Texas, has won the first-ever Sharman Stein Award for Storytelling Changemakers, a new accolade created to highlight local governments doing strong work in communications and resident engagement.
Results for America — the lead partner in the Bloomberg Philanthropies data-driven local governance initiative What Works Cities — is the creator of the award, and officials with the organization praised the robust and innovative ways Arlington communicates with its residents.
The group specifically pointed to a number of initiatives undertaken by the city, including creating a news website that posts three to five original stories a day, teaming up with the IT department on projects such as creating informative Amazon Alexa skills and placing a member of the communications team on Arlington’s data governance committee.
Jay Warren, Arlington’s director of communication and legislative affairs, said he and his team were “honored and humbled” by the recognition. Warren runs a team of eight members. Many of them have backgrounds in local media, as well as diverse skills that complement each other — from news writing, to video production, to graphic design and more. To hear Warren tell it, the city simply identified a need for better pathways of communication, and it moved to fill it by leveraging new and inexpensive forms of communication, such as social media.
“In the ever-changing media landscape, we found ourselves in Arlington with a need to communicate with our residents,” Warren said. “What’s happening in our city wasn’t always being covered by the local newspaper or the local TV station.”
So, they now cover it themselves, sharing it on their website as well as with their 40,000 followers on Facebook, a number that is higher than any other city in Texas. The type of information Warren’s team disseminates to the community is diverse, ranging from announcements of local events to news items about bad weather or traffic accidents. The goal, however, is always to get the people who live in Arlington to be more interested and connected to their local government.
“The storytelling component is really critical,” Warren said. “How do we bring everything we do to life in a way that makes our residents want to learn more about our city?”
That question is really at the center of this new award, which was named for What Works Cities’ founding director of communications, Sharman Stein, who passed away last year. It “recognizes a city official or team who draws on the power of public communication to cultivate trust and collaboration between local government and residents,” Results for America noted in its press release.
In a phone conversation this week with Government Technology, What Works Cities Executive Director Simone Brody and Associate Communications Director Kristin Taylor emphasized Stein’s legacy of helping cities learn how to communicate better with the people they served.
“The idea was Sharman passed away a little over a year ago, and we both cared for her deeply and also really wanted to recognize the contributions she made to our organization and the cities she worked with,” Brody said. “In thinking how to do that, we saw this great opportunity to also really elevate the work she cared so deeply about.”
Stein spent decades working as a newspaper reporter across the country, before going to work for public agencies and nonprofit groups in New York City, always stressing the power of communications and storytelling to public servants and agencies. The award — which the group is announcing on Stein’s birthday — is intended to inspire cities nationwide to do the work Stein was so passionate about.
“Sharman was someone who really saw the importance of not just telling the simple or easy story,” Taylor said. “She saw that active listening was a really important part of being a storyteller too.”
Taylor often traveled on the road with Stein, going to the different cities that her group helped support to discuss the best practices for communicating with residents. Stein, she said, would often listen to what the cities did to put info into the world, asking in turn what they were doing to also speak directly to their residents.
“She was the one who created change by telling stories,” Taylor said, “not just in how she saw the world and the changes they wanted to effect, but how she made cities think differently about how they themselves see stories.”