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City Governments are Trending on Social Media
By: Brenda J. Trainor


City budgets have always been a challenge, and the current fiscal crisis with the state budget that depletes standard revenue sources has made municipal budgeting even more difficult for cities in California.  Like all organizations in a recessive economy, cities are being asked to do more with fewer resources, while they are forced to stay current on emerging trends and use current technologies to give the public what it wants.

One of the advantages of new technologies is that they can increase the efficiency and speed of information to your selected audience.  Yet, the challenge to the effective deployment of any new information and communication technology is that you have to invest resources into learning how they work most efficiently, establish systems to implement them, then acquire and maintain the equipment and services that make them work, and commit the staff resources to carve out the time to actually do the work.

So you can imagine the challenge of deploying a social media strategy for any organization, especially one like a small municipal government that must operate with transparency and exists in a sea of scrutiny and competing priorities.  But despite the challenge, cities in the Glendale/Pasadena region have embraced social media as a new way of reaching their constituencies with contemporary style.

Pasadena was one of the first are cities that fully embraced social media.  That city’s Public Information Officer, Ann Erdman (recently retired and now a lady of leisure) is an independent blogger and an accomplished writer with a lot of technological savvy.  With her personal skill set, she was able to start deploying a popular Twitter account and Facebook posting strategy, after having earlier mastered both a web site initiative and government television channel production effort.   And she managed to integrate all these technologies into the rigors of a municipal system of approvals, authorizations, and sometimes heated politics.  And she, like all PIOs, did this amid all the other established responsibilities of informing a demanding public through newsletters, annual reports, press releases, speeches and personal appearances to handle routine and emergency notices all while negotiating media relationships for commercial newspapers, magazines, and television and radio outlets; and all this amidst the demands of bureaucratic bosses and sometimes egotistical politicians.  Makes you wonder who would want such a career, doesn’t it? 

But, many people want to operate as these techno-public servants, and find the combination of high stress and pressure coupled with social responsibility to be extremely fulfilling.  But few have all the skills necessary to roll out the wide range of emerging communications technologies on a daily basis.  In Pasadena, for example, the new PIO hasn’t yet been able to fulfill the social media strategy component that had been established.  But, let me suggest that we just give it time.  The public is demanding to gets its information through these new social media strategies – there are even initiatives to deploy texting, instant messaging, and internet systems for 911 and other emergency communications systems.  Social media is becoming the norm, not the exception.

The challenge for cities is how to integrate all the new and different technologies into an integrated media strategy.  Simply consider the different rules of some of the new social media technologies:  Twitter messages are capped at 140 characters, Facebook and Google+ postings can be longer, but the public isn’t inclined to read long postings.   Compare those messages to the content of a news release that can be hundreds of words long.  It is the PIO who must figure out what gets cut, and how to craft the message to the various media being deployed…because the kernal of the message must be consistent across all media.

Other cities in our region are jumping on the social media bandwagon too.  Late last year, the City of Burbank launched both Twitter and Facebook services.  And they rolled out a system for the public to stay informed with “e-notify me” to get automatic notices of important pieces of city information sent directly to email inboxes.

Other cities that actively use Twitter and Facebook include Glendale, Monrovia and Arcadia.  In fact, it is hard to find a city in this region that does not have a social media presence.  And in addition to the official social media presence operated by the city administration, elected officials are also getting in on the action.

Many mayors and council members have their own personal Twitter and Facebook accounts that are sometimes operated as part of their civic responsibilities, and sometimes as personal outlets.  These are important additions to the political landscape, adding a different dimension to the local political scene. 

It is certain that the pressure to deliver information to the public will require that cities deliver information on all the popular media, and as with all things technological, these modes are going to evolve along with the skills necessary to make them work.  Figuring out how to prioritize the time it takes to craft messages for all these different media in a time-sensitive environment may be the greatest challenge of all for our area PIOs.  Give them a lot of support by “liking” their Facebook pages, and following them on Twitter… you’ll be impressed with all the information you can get.