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A Small City’s Path to Getting the Most from Social Media

Officials in Pismo Beach knew there were hurdles, but along the way they learned a lot about how to reap the benefits.

Establishing a social media presence can be intimidating, especially for smaller cities. Time and managerial requirements are difficult to anticipate. The seemingly endless array of content and interfaces, not to mention uncertainties about liability issues and the potential for political embarrassment, add to concerns about the adoption of this civic technology.

Officials in Pismo Beach, Calif., a city of less than 10,000, certainly had all of those concerns when they embarked on a digital-engagement strategy. But the prospect of more effectively communicating with citizens and monitoring public opinion was so alluring that it seemed well worth taking chances.

So in 2015 the city manager's office brought together staff, elected officials and consultants to design and implement a social media presence that fit the city's unique needs. Much was learned in the process that could help other small cities overcome the challenges and reap the benefits of social media. Here are some suggestions and observations drawing on the lessons Pismo Beach learned:

Dedicate a team and educate the public: Every city already has staff who engage with the public on a regular basis, from department heads to those responsible for answering calls and processing permits. To facilitate effective use of social media, Pismo Beach dedicated a team of leaders and created a "playbook" with guidelines for social media use, platform summaries (for Facebook and Twitter), and questions of accessibility, records management and user responsibilities. These were reviewed in a series of meetings that explored best practices already in place along with examples of successful social media use.

Public education is a crucial part of any technology launch, but open public meetings turned out to be an ineffective way to get people engaged online. Targeted meetings with specific audiences, such as senior citizens, were more successful. Fortunately, most citizens are already using social media; you just need to connect them.

Get important information out there: Regularly posting event content, such as holiday celebrations and community activities, was the most effective way to build the city's social media audience, followed by recognitions of public service. "Boosting" or advertising these types of posts to residents through geographic targeting is easy and inexpensive compared to newsletters, and made it possible to more than double the city's Facebook and Twitter audiences over the implementation period. Detailed results of the city's efforts along these lines can be found in its Digital Engagement Report.

Even if relatively few residents, as a percentage of total population, will actively follow a community's social media, that does not reduce the value of being able to communicate quickly and effectively with the public. One summer morning, a mistaken shark sighting began to go viral, but city staff were able to quickly respond with accurate information that also went viral, reaching thousands of potential beach-goers within hours.

(A word of caution about social media numbers: Don't let your real constituents get lost. Small cities, especially those with strong tourism, will attract "friends" who are almost entirely from out of town. The Pismo Beach Facebook site now has over 5,000 likes, but only a few hundred report Pismo Beach as their permanent home. )

Keep it simple, and mobile: Nearly half of social media users access it primarily through smartphones, so effective communication means mobile communication. By focusing on the most widely used social media platforms -- Facebook and Twitter -- along with the city's own mobile app, Pismo Pulse, the city provides an effective way for citizens to communicate with their government. Facebook and Twitter not only allow city officials to monitor public opinion and reactions to policy, but these platforms help them educate. The city attributes higher meeting attendance rates to targeted social media outreach, and recently boosted a city response to a controversial water quality report that reached over 1,000 residents.

The Pismo Pulse app allows citizens to communicate directly with departments to process requests for services, from streets and maintenance to utilities, public records, licensing, public safety and code enforcement. As one city staff member related, the mobile app "is effective in tracking complaints and responding to concerned citizens, as well as transferring their concern to other departments. It creates a better historical record than a phone call."

Pismo Beach has learned a great deal from its first year of digital engagement. Staff need clear expectations, experience and opportunities to engage. It's not necessary to respond to every negative comment. And perhaps most important, with the right tools citizens can become effective partners in the provision of public services and in community improvement.

An associate professor at California Polytechnic State University
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