How We Improved Citizen Outreach With Social Media
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How We Improved Citizen Outreach With Social Media

Stephanie Smith, Public Information Officer, Town of Morrisville

The rise in popularity of social media as a way for consumers to receive news has forced change in practice on a government level. Where social media was once just a place where followers could be entertained with jokes or memes, it is now also a place where there is an expectation of sharing important news, urgent alerts and emergency information – at the exact time the event is occurring.

A widespread effort has been made in local government to increase transparency, and make information more readily available, without the need for a public records request to receive it. While open data is becoming more of an expectation in government, at times it’s a large ask for some organizations to take on without significant effort and resources. Instead, governments are becoming more available and transparent in other forums, like social media.

After a rebranding effort in 2016, the Town of Morrisville, North Carolina, has placed more emphasis on their social media outreach by expanding their accounts to include department-specific information (Fire, Police, Parks & Recreation and Stormwater to be exact), and has put effort into becoming more available to interact and provide responses to citizen questions. This allows citizens to engage directly with staff, ask important questions and know they can receive answers in a timely manner. With a new tagline of “Live Connected. Live Well”, a natural expectation would be to enhance connectivity with citizens, and one of the easiest ways to do this is to be accessible in the places they spend the most time – social media.

Adding department-specific social media accounts to the inventory has allowed staff to get specific about their roles in the organization, which has attracted followers who have a particular interest in one area of government. Ultimately, this builds strong relationships with citizens who later may participate in other areas of government, such as volunteering for a citizen advisory committee.

"The efforts to enhance social media presence, and provide more timely, urgent and news-worthy information has tremendously enhanced the government-citizen relationship"

A pitfall of this approach is the expectation that a question – no matter when it is asked – will be answered immediately. This is offset with staff being available after hours, but also by setting expectations of when a citizen can reasonably expect to receive a response. It’s a worthwhile tradeoff when staff has the opportunity to exceed expectations and provide a citizen with a response more quickly than was expected.

Social media also becomes the first line of information for the public during an emergency. When press releases are issued to the media, there is a delay between when the information is released, and when a media outlet can report on it. Time is of the essence when you are dealing with a public safety emergency like an evacuation, or even an emergency that requires a road closure. Having direct access to citizens through social media allows staff to notify the public of the problem before the next news cycle can report on it.

The efforts to enhance social media presence, and provide more timely, urgent and news-worthy information has tremendously enhanced the government-citizen relationship. When citizens can expect important information to be shared through social media channels, it builds trust and allows for the opportunity to build a worthwhile relationship. The Town of Morrisville’s use of social media has been an ideal resource for sharing emergency information, urgent alerts and allowed engagement with the citizens of Morrisville. And maybe a few jokes, too.

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