County officials shared their successes in communicating the county story to the public and offered practical advice for peers during the Closing General Session of the TAC 2017 Legislative Conference.
Also during the session, Chet Garner, of PBS television’s “The Daytripper” highlighted Texas Counties Deliver print, video and website resources available to help counties’ with their public outreach efforts.
Here’s a round-up of the key takeaways from the session.
Telling the County Story – What Works and How
During a panel discussion, Comal County Treasure Renee Couch, Williamson County Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell and Ellis County Commissioner Lane Grayson shared how they and their counties are connecting with the public to help them better understand county government.
Williamson County Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell
Gravel, who regularly shares information on multiple social media platforms, told the crowd that his posts helped Williamson County residents better understand the duties of a justice of the peace.
He intentionally shares positive, helpful information through text, videos and pictures – including selfies with residents and fellow local officials either taken on the job or while participating in community activities. He also shares pictures of his family.
“Social media is a great tool to make a difference,” he said.
Gravell shared one example of this when he explained that law enforcement tracked down a suspect in a deadly hit-and-run auto accident in Williamson County with the help of social media.
Gravell said that after he shared a description of a vehicle seen at an accident, “I had 400 shares and within six days the vehicle was found; and within another five days an arrest made. Local media picked up my message and began to broadcast it.”
Over time, he’s built up a large following on social media. Gravell illustrated the power of social media’s reach and connectivity with a story about what happened when he posted the “Counties, Distinctly Texas” video, the first in a series of videos about county government produced by Garner.
“We posted the video to Facebook users in Williamson County and in a month had over 8.8 million views, over 18,000 shares and 5,000 comments and thousands of likes,” Gravell said.He uses the app Buffer once a week to schedule most of his posts in advance for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snap Chat, Pinterest and LinkedIn.
Gravel said social media is just a tool; it is how you use it that makes a difference. “We have a platform as elected officials,” he said. When creating a post, “I try to be discrete and wise.”
Comal County Treasurer Renee Couch
University of County Government
Couch said Comal County’s Commissioners Court established the University of County Government in 2013 to educate the public. The program is administered by commissioners court staff and accepts 25-35 county residents annually from a pool of applicants.
Participants attend ten, 3-hour sessions one night a week, each focusing on a different topic such as finance, law enforcement, county services and community services.
The group meets in and tours various county facilities, including the courthouse, county extension office, fire marshall’s office and sheriff’s office.
“They see the equipment that they are paying for, get a jail tour,” Couch said. “It promotes Comal County being a team … a cohesive team working for them.”
Couch said participants are hungry for information. The educational sessions develop well-informed citizens, allow officials to dispel myths about how the county operates, shine a light on the dedicated county staff who work behind the scenes and allow officials to receive helpful feedback.
Participants receive a certificate upon completion. This year, Comal County graduated its fifth class.
“The bonus is that those (participants) are now ambassadors for your county. They are now telling your story for you. That’s the best part,” Couch said. “Now you’ve got each class — 25-35 people — educated correctly and slightly passionate about the county. We’ve seen those participants get involved with county government — whether they run for an office or get involved with county boards and committees.”
Couch urged officials to visit co.comal.tx.us/ucg to learn more, and added, “Take what you like and change it to fit your county.”
Ellis County Commissioner Lane Grayson
Grayson communicates with his county’s residents by shooting short videos with his smartphone and posting them to Facebook. The videos help him achieve some of his goals as a first-term commissioner – to inform the public about road and bridge construction projects and to keep them updated about hazardous road conditions.
“Whether it’s a town hall meeting we want to announce, or a road situation that needs to be announced, I quickly just grab my phone and go out to the site and bring relevant information,” Grayson said.
“In the palm of your hand you’ve got the technology to make a comment that’s relevant to the people you live with,” Grayson said. “I make a point to share quickly without rehearsing.”
He offered these tips for recording videos:
- Be yourself. Your passion for the topic will come through.
- Be relevant. Stick to local issues that affect the viewer.
- Show what you’re talking about. Take video of floodwaters over the dangerous roadways and barricades on closed roads.
His videos have been so popular that he’s planning to produce more featuring interviews with road and bridge crew members on the job discussing the work they do, the equipment they use and how drivers can stay safe while in work zones.
“Lots of times the public drives by and they don’t know what we’re doing,” Grayson said. “I’ll go out once a week and explain what they do and we’ll load it up the same day.”
When county officials take the time to inform their constituents in these ways, they’re serving in the best capacity possible, Grayson said.
“As a county official, we ought to be the first line of communications with our residents,” he said. “Take the charge that you’ve been given when you took the oath. Be there for them. Bring them information.
Learn about resources to help you share your county story:
Videos, Print Materials and More Available