Commentary: How Social Media Elevates Engagement for Local Government

It's being used in increasingly powerful ways to enhance communications in hundreds of communities, helping to create trust and transparency.

Editor’s note: This commentary first appeared in Governing* and was written by Chris Hsiung, deputy police chief of Mountain View. In April 2017, Hsiung was honored as one of the "Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers" by Government Technology.*

Governing offers public officials, practitioners and experts from a variety of backgrounds a platform to share opinions and analysis on a broad range of topics relevant to state and local government. One such commentary posted on Valentine’s Day drew a decidedly mixed reaction, particularly from public employees who work under sometimes difficult circumstances in government communications and social media. We invited them to tell their story. 

Social media has become for many the standard currency of government communication.

After a deadly mudslide wiped out telephone poles, officials in Snohomish County, Wash., used Facebook to connect a devastated community to vital resources. TikTok helps the city of Minneapolis raise awareness about the 2020 Census in a friendly, compelling way. In Maryland, teens and young adults provide marketing feedback on school safety materials via Instagram Stories.

These are just a few of the thousands of examples of where digital engagement has enhanced communication in communities, helping to create the trust and transparency with which government entities have traditionally struggled. Hundreds of jurisdictions and agencies across the country have embraced social media as a customer service tool that encourages one-on-one and one-to-many engagement and, more importantly, as a way to address concerns and solve problems. 

Of course, not all governments have gone all in with social media, and there can still be barriers in government that interfere with the ability to create and share creative content. This could be in the form of restrictive rules or a lack of leadership buy-in, or cumbersome, multistep approval processes, or equipment costs and staffing issues. But is it worth the effort to overcome these roadblocks? The answer, unequivocally, is yes.

Even with all its nuances and intricacies, social media fundamentally facilitates government transparency. Long gone are the days when digital communication amounted to no more than public-notice bulletin boards. Agencies can showcase what makes government tick — humans! And it's in these stories and shared experiences that we all learn about the passion and persistence that comes with connecting communities. Social media shows us all that we are better together.

Government social media managers know how to use their tools to put politics and acronyms aside and provide their communities with something identifiable and personalized. Maybe it’s a story; maybe it’s something fun (and maybe they even crack a joke); or maybe it’s in those sobering experiences, such as the aftermath of a natural disaster, that evoke raw emotion. The point is this: Government agencies are creating engaging content daily on their social platforms. And, more important, they are laying the foundation for a government communication model for future generations.

Social media managers bring a range of skills to the job. They are graphic designers, podcasters, video editors, photographers and strategic communicators. And there’s more to doing the job effectively than mastering technical skills: They empathize when a resident has had a hard day. They bear the brunt of the negativity that can come from existing in the social media space as a government staffer. They work closely with departments and agencies to share the organizational vision with the community and solicit buy-in for projects, plans and agency campaigns. The importance of growing trust in government and improving communities is in the very marrow of those who do this work.

Many organizations and associations are working to raise the bar. The National Disaster Preparedness Training Center, for example, provides government communicators with emergency-specific social media training. Organizations like Government Social Media and Engaging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) play a vital role in sharing best practices, connecting a diverse network of government professionals, and translating marketing and communications strategies that work so well in the private sector into actionable steps that improve the service government provides.

In March, more than 1,000 public-sector communicators will gather at Government Social Media’s annual conference, where major social media platforms share best practices and strategies to enhance engagement while also listening to and learning from the audience to fine-tune their platforms for better civic interaction. Public-sector communicators will meet again in May to share ideas and learn at ELGL’s annual conference.

With more than a decade of use in the government sphere, social media has evolved into an expected method of communication for residents, media and other audiences. Recognizing that, government social media managers are creating strategic social communication plans designed to deliver measurable, meaningful results.

Residents of our communities have been introduced to, and have come to appreciate, how social media can elevate their connectivity to their local governments. The challenge we must all undertake now is not to just maintain that but take it even further. The possibilities are endless.

*Governing and Government Technology are publications of e.Republic, which also produces Techwire.

Contributing to this column were Jessie Brown of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources; Sarah Gamblin-Luig of the St. Louis, Mo., Emergency Management Agency; Jordan Gilgenbach of the city of Minneapolis; Emily Allen Lucht of the Maryland Center for School Safety; Bronlea Mishler of Camano Island, Wash., Fire and Rescue; and Katie Nelson of the Mountain View Police Department.

Governing: The Future of States and Localities examines what state and local government looks like in a world of rapidly advancing technology. Its website, newsletters and custom content are a resource for elected and appointed officials and other public leaders seeking smart insights and a forum to better understand and manage through this era of change. Governing is a sister publication to Techwire and both are produced by parent company e.Republic.