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Social media concerns and strategies, and the transition from engagement to interaction, were discussed during the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association’s holiday meeting on Dec. 12 in Worcester.
Patrick Lawlor, director of administrative services in Andover, talked about the town’s three-pronged approach to its social media accounts: engagement, response and interaction. Andover has official town Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages, as well as multiple department pages. The town developed a social media working group that involves every department in town government.
Traditionally, Andover was focused on posting town event promotions, meeting agendas and details, evergreen reminders, photos from events, and emergency and response notifications.
During the natural gas emergency that hit Andover, North Andover and Lawrence in September 2018, Andover relied heavily on social media for broad-based dissemination of information to the community. It was in the aftermath, while monitoring residents’ posts, that the town realized that many of the comments would need individual responses from the town.
“Interaction is the one-on-one dialogue between town staff and residents of the community,” Lawlor said. “In the past, we’ve let conversations happen [among residents on social media] and observed them, but we didn’t participate. But last year we started taking a proactive approach and participating in those community groups.”
There are three major community groups, with 17,000 members, Lawlor said. The value to being present in the groups is not only the one-on-one communication with a member of the community, but the opportunity to show all group readers that the town government and employees are paying attention.
“We’re meeting residents in the spaces they feel comfortable at the times they are available,” Lawlor said.
Direct interaction on social media channels can also be valuable to prevent the spread of misinformation. Lawlor said there is value when the facts come directly from a town hall staff member.
Lawlor recommended that cities and towns establish “rules of engagement” for staff to follow, share the responsibility across departments, rely on employees with sound judgment, and know the town’s social media “players.”
Auburn Town Manager Julie Jacobson recommended making use of analytics tools provided by social media platforms to determine the demographics of who is seeing and engaging with your posts, and at what times, in order to improve the municipal social media strategy. She also recommended identifying one point person within the town to manage social media during emergencies.
Danvers Assistant Town Manager Jen Breaker discussed the value of using “low-cost/no-cost” design programs, like Canva, to make your own engaging graphics that can help followers identify evergreen posts.
Breaker shared a story of when the town had to take down an old but beloved tree outside Town Hall, and she took a time-lapsed video of the process to share with followers.
Another time, Town Manager Steve Bartha wanted to learn more about the Fire Department, and the town documented his visit to the station and participation in a live fire training on social media, which received a lot of engagement.
Social media can help local officials reach audiences that otherwise might not be aware of municipal activities.
“Looking at the analytics, we know 35- to 44-year-olds, that is who we are reaching on Instagram,” Breaker said. “That’s one of our hardest-to-reach populations. They are not coming into Town Hall.”
The speakers also stressed the importance of municipalities archiving their social media posts.