Cities Adopting Social Media

John Hope-Johnstone

Buenos días. This post is the first in a series of three concentrating on the use of social media by Cities.  While elected officials have been relatively quick to pounce upon the power of social media as a communications tool, (after President Obama paved the way), City governments have not been so fast to adopt the new media to reach their citizens. In July 2009 a Fels Institute survey found that only 50% of the 79 cities surveyed had a facebook presence, while 56% were on Twitter.

A highly unscientific study by our own HPR Public Relations & Social Media organization, (using a facebook search, “City of”), could find only 6 US Cities with a facebook fan page. More cities had “unofficial facebook pages” created by non-profits, perhaps with the blessing of the city, perhaps not. There also seems to be an organization running around putting up facebook template pages for a city all with very similar content. The three cities we found that had these templates were; the City of Sacramento, Brampton and San Diego, each had only a very few followers.
These unofficial City fan pages are market as “Company” and designate themselves as “Community Pages” and all begin with; “Our goal is to make this Community Page the best collection of shared knowledge on this topic. If you have a passion for XYZ City, sign up and we’ll let you know when we’re ready for your help. You can also get us started by suggesting a relevant Wikipedia article or the Official Site.”
One of the first “official” city pages we found was  Albany Oregon, which has a fan page following of roughly 500 people, which considering its size of about 47,000 people, is very good.
Albany seems to use it’s postings mainly to announce job openings, Parks and Recreation and event announcements. It does allow fans to write on its wall and all of them seem to be of a positive nature.
Another interesting and very popular example is the City of Philadelphia which has a series of unofficial facebook pages and one “non-profit” page which has about 120,000 followers. This one, according to a blog was threatened to be shut down by facebook in July of 2009 but it still seems to be up with a large number of followers nearly a year later. 
A good example of a well created city site is the City and County of San Francisco:
The City and County of San Francisco does not seem to allow fan contributions on their pages but use it as a one way communications tool to announce meetings, alerts and special events. With just under 250,000 fans it is a popular site. The page owners are titled as an “organization”, it looks like an official page but when we tried the phone number we got what sounded like a fax machine response .

There appears to be multiple reasons for foot-dragging according The Fels Institute Report, including concerns about the potential for;  public criticism, legal issues, workload, and general cost to the often cash-strapped towns. But the benefits of social media outreach, according to researchers at Penn State, outweigh the potential downsides.

In speaking to the Fel’s Institute, The City of Philadelphia’s then Assistant Managing Director, Jeff Friedman said, “the value for us is being able to reach so many people at one time at zero cost.  Again, we are such a big organization and there is so much going on. Certainly we feel as a part of this administration we are doing a great deal of fantastic, transformational work and that we need to get this out to people.”

Cities are rushing to prepare policies and procedures that they hope will help them ease gracefully into the social media world. In many cases they are so draconian that any employee would be foolish to attempt to tweet about a departmental activity without going through the legal department first.

Seattle has a good policy and encourages the rank and file of city employees to communicate, where appropriate, using social media. In their preamble to the policy they say: “To address the fast-changing landscape of the Internet and the way residents communicate and obtain information online, City of Seattle departments may consider using social media tools to reach a broader audience. The City encourages the use of social media to further the goals of the City and the missions of its departments, where appropriate. ”

Seattle divides social media use into two categories:

  1. As channels for disseminating time-sensitive information as quickly as possible (example: emergency information). (Usually Twitter)
  2. As marketing/promotional channels which increase the City’s ability to broadcast its messages to the widest possible audience. (Facebook and Blogs)

The City of Seattle clearly outlines what is acceptable from a public contribution and recommends that all postings from the public that do not meet these standards be removed.

  1. Users and visitors to social media sites shall be notified that the intended purpose of the site is to serve as a mechanism for communication between City departments and members of the public. City of Seattle social media site articles and comments containing any of the following forms of content shall not be allowed:
    1. Comments not topically related to the particular social medium article being commented upon;
    2. Comments in support of or opposition to political campaigns or ballot measures;
    3. Profane language or content;
    4. Content that promotes, fosters, or perpetuates discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, age, religion, gender, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, national origin, physical or mental disability or sexual orientation;
    5. Sexual content or links to sexual content;
    6. Solicitations of commerce;
    7. Conduct or encouragement of illegal activity;
    8. Information that may tend to compromise the safety or security of the public or public systems; or
    9. Content that violates a legal ownership interest of any other party.

Cities are also concerned about individual state laws regarding record retention and it is always advisable that a link be provided back to an expanded version of the social media comment hosted on  the cities’ main Web site where the body of work should be maintained for legal purposes.

City Twitter accounts seem to be limited to information of a critical nature where City Departments need to get information out rapidly. Twitter is being used by police, fire and emergency departments.

Facebook is being used for less immediate city information such as job postings, events, department notifications and celebrations. Content that cannot be retrieved from facebook via an API (application programming interface) and needs to be retained as a record is being printed and maintained according to the City’s records retention policy.

Some smaller cities have used social media to help give city government a “face”. By city government I mean city departments. You Tube, Flickr and Podcasts have been used to explain the workings of certain projects and the departments themselves and different employees have taken on the task of making city government departments more human.

I hope this is a good start at looking into the role of our cities and social media. We will expand and write more on this topic for the next post.

Please add any good city examples using social media that you may have found. Thanks for reading this blog.

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