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The Latest Social Media Trend in Government

It's hard to get people to follow their local government on Facebook or Twitter. A few cities are using their employees' personal accounts to connect with more residents.

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Sometimes a tweet can change your life.

When Katie Nash, the social media coordinator for Frederick County Public Schools (FCPS) in Maryland, saw a student's tweet wondering if a snowstorm would close school “tammorow," she tweeted back from the FCPS account: “But then how would you learn to spell tomorrow?” 

Eleven days, 1,100 retweets and 1,400 “likes” later, Nash was fired.

In defense of that decision, school officials explained to The Washington Post that the school system’s Twitter feed was supposed to convey “an FCPS voice” with the number one goal to “lift up and encourage the students.” The school board's vice president weighed in, calling the tweet "inappropriate."

Determining what is and isn’t appropriate in the use of social media by government employees has gotten more complicated. When the public sector first dipped its toes in social media, tweets and Facebook posts from government agencies were centralized, controlled and mostly regarded as a way to send out short one-way announcements that a budget meeting was being held or that a street was closed for utility repairs. 

But with time, employees' access to government accounts has grown, and there's an expectation of more casual, more interactive, less bureaucratic communication. After all, the president of the United States uses Twitter to spontaneously and frequently connect with his constituents in informal ways.

"Historically, when governments first went down this road, they grudgingly pushed out information. They used social media like a brochure rack in a government office," says Chris Hsiung, a police captain who has written and spoken extensively about the evolution of social media, especially in police departments. "For those who understand social media, it needs to be two-way communication. It has to be readable so people share it and you have to be funny and personable. You don't want to sound like a government drone. You want to sound like a human."

Hsiung works for the Mountain View Police Department (MVPD), which is in Silicon Valley -- the home of Facebook. Last year, when the newest "Star Wars" film came out, Mountain View police plugged its DUI campaign with a video showing the movie's villain, Darth Vader, getting pulled over for drunk driving.

But, Hsiung cautions, humor isn't always acceptable. It’s also important to make sure the tone of a tweet is in line with the message. “This morning," he says, "we had a fatal traffic accident, and so the voice changes to very matter of fact.”

Hsiung, like many, also believes in narrowing the number of people who tweet for the department. “Consistency of voice is really crucial,” he says.

But, somewhat contrary to that idea, a small yet growing number of governments are turning their employees into social media ambassadors who promote the city on their personal social media accounts.

In the town of Gilbert, Ariz., there's a core team of digital journalists, video specialists, a data and technology analyst and a digital communications strategist. They manage Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Snapchat accounts, but they "can't be everywhere," says Jennifer Alvarez, Gilbert's digital media and marketing officer. "Social media is a 24/7 job."

To expand their reach, three years ago the Gilbert digital team started to offer Social Media 101 training to its employees. Six months ago, it created a more formal ambassador program, with a series of five lunchtime sessions. When an employee completes those sessions, he or she becomes a Certified Gilbert Social Media Ambassador -- a title that doesn't bring any monetary reward but is a source of pride and also helps employees promote the work of their own departments.

"Employees are our best advocates. We want them sharing our content with their friends, families and networks," says Alvarez.

If they have trouble with complaints, requests or questions prompted by shared content, the digital team is available to help.

Sharing content has been so successful in Gilbert that a parody of Justin Timberlake's "Can't Stop the Feeling" song featuring Gilbert employees and residents ended up being shared by Justin Timberlake with his 90 million followers on Twitter and Facebook.

In 2015, Las Vegas similarly started an ambassador program to help foster a human connection between the city and its residents. As in Gilbert, there are no monetary rewards, though there are smaller perks, such as special dinners or a first shot at appearing in city videos.

"I think employees just really like being informed. They like that we trust them to help us share our message," says Jennifer Davies, the city's social media manager.

In the ambassador trainings in Vegas, employees are taught to think through what they're posting and to be aware of what's happening in the world around them "so you don't sound tone deaf," she says.

On its official accounts, Las Vegas is also careful not to talk itself up too much. About 50 percent of its content has little to do with the government itself. For example, the city uses social media to wish good luck to local hockey teams, plug a community festival or remind residents to set their clocks back when Daylight Saving Time ends. 

“We are 50-50 on shared content,” says Davies. “Most brands spend a lot of time talking about themselves, but social media is like a relationship. If you only talk about yourself, people aren’t that interested.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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