When Tweeting Gets the Job Done

 Texas counties find effective uses for social media


At 8:45 in the morning on Dec. 9, 2009, the American Acryl Plant in Pasadena exploded. A massive cloud of black smoke filled the sky and drifted into area school districts as a large fire attacked the facility, where acrylic acid is made for use in nail polish and household cleaners.

Emergency managers in the Houston-Galveston area were mostly concerned about how the chemical plant explosion would affect the air quality supply; according to the U .S. Department of Health and Human Services, the chemicals pouring upwards from the plant had the potential to affect the respiratory tract and nervous system, causing tiredness, confusion, weakness, memory loss, nausea and other symptoms – even death.

The Galveston County Office of Emergency Management immediately got to work informing residents near the explosion about a shelter in place. They sent out text and voice mail messages and posted information on their Web site. But they also incorporated new tools: updates to the county’s Facebook and Twitter​ accounts.

The information campaign went smoothly. The area’s air quality was tested and determined safe; and orders to shelter in place were lifted by 11 a.m. “In the past when we just used voice and text messaging notification of events, most of the time when we’d receive feedback, it was negative, originating from residents who didn’t get our messages,” said Michael Lee Lockwood, Galveston County’s emergency operations coordinator. “But with Facebook and Twitter, there is now an outlet for positive feedback. People saying ‘oh, we got your tweet, thanks for letting us know.’”

While Galveston County enjoys getting positive feedback from residents via its new social media pages, many counties have so far avoided taking advantage of social media sites for a number of reasons. Some are worried about negative postings or comments, believing that countyoperated sites aren’t the proper forum for residents to post controversial opinions. But Tim Wyatt, Collin County’s public information officer, said reasons against using social media are dwindling. The county uses social media sharing functions including Facebook and Twitter, despite initial concerns about how residents would use or abuse the new platforms.

“We viewed this as a great way to deliver information,” Wyatt said. “But we did not want to enable any blogging or commenting features. So someone cannot post anything they want or push politics or policy beliefs on people.” Wyatt said their main goal is to inform as many people as possible about important information or any new services.

“It’s about county supplies of the flu vaccine, where the locations are, the different county agencies doing food drives,” he said. “And it’s about getting this information out to the most people.”

Wyatt’s not avoiding negative feedback; his email is readily visible. He just wants to make sure the taxpayers are getting their questions answered in an efficient way, and that the phone lines are cleared for people with more specific questions or concerns or who don’t have the Internet to get the information they need.

“If there is a bond project going on in their street, I want them to know what’s going on,” he said. “On social media sites, I can post what’s going on to hundreds of people at once. This is their money; they deserve to know how it’s being used. And social media tools are free ways to get this message out to the most people.”

While Collin County views social media as a bulletin board, other Texas counties use the platforms as a two-way chat with residents. Hidalgo County Public Information Officer Cari Lambrecht was tasked with launching a social media plan, including a blog and a Twitter page, in order to promote a more transparent, interactive local government.

“When (former) Judge J.D. Salinas came to office, he wanted to take a more responsive, interactive approach to communicating to residents,” she said. “We were to open the lines of communication between the public, the media and between county offices. There are good ideas out there; sometimes it’s best to just be quiet and listen.”

The platforms also provide the county with opportunities to publicly act on the good ideas it received. On one blog posting, for example, a reader commented about what a great idea it would be to establish a county employee scholarship fund. Lambrecht carried the idea to Judge Salinas, and the scholarship was born in January 2008. Several county employees and their children have since received educational aid to South Texas College, and the county has been able to communicate the success back to the original blog commenter, a retired county worker.

Salinas has since accepted an appointment from President Barack Obama to the U.S. General Services Administration; he now oversees the management of federal real estate and information technology and other GSA-related activities in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The blog, which Salinas wrote, is defunct while the county searches for the right replacement author.

Meanwhile, Lambrecht is focusing the county’s social media efforts on Twitter. The county now “tweets” information about H1N1 vaccinations, cold weather shelters, charity drives and more. “We did not replace traditional media,” Lambrecht said. “We just added a way to get out the information.”

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 12.16.18 PM.pngThe tweets don’t replace the blog, she added. The blog allows the county to share in-depth information with interested readers, while the tweets are short and sweet – always less than 140 characters by definition, though many of the county’s tweets contain Internet links to more substantial information.

“Our blog was to kind of show ‘here are my thoughts on this issue,’ a more behind-the-scenes look than what you might get in a newspaper. Maybe it’s about something going on in the office. But it always pertains to government,” she said. “Twitter is like text messaging on steroids.”

County officeholders are also using social media platforms for personal and professional reasons.

Collin County Judge Keith Self is running for re-election. He wanted to open up the lines of communication to his county’s voters without having to rely on area media outlets, so he started a blog and a Facebook page.

“I wanted to get unfiltered information to the voters,” Self said. “This is the modern form of communication.” He acknowledged the ability to get information directly to the electorate comes with the ability for detractors to have easy access to the content.

“People can distort what I say or pull a quote out of context,” he said. “But it’s balanced with a more informed electorate.” Choosing exactly which social media platform to use may seem like a big decision, but Self said he just chose to go where the crowds went, and where he was comfortable.

“There was no elaborate process or strategy,” he said. “Facebook is just so popular and lots of people are on it. Go where the people are.” Self said he definitely uses the various social media tools in different ways.

“The blog is meant for more policy or news items, with occasional calls for political support,” he said. “Facebook has more pictures; it’s more personal, with the occasional policy and news information.”

Lockwood, the Galveston County emergency operations coordinator, said the decisions to engage in social media and which tools to use were easy; he, too, went with the crowd. “The goal of a mass notification system or a public notification system is to get your message out to the greatest number of people in the quickest time. People are on their computer or their phone 24/7,” he said. “In order to facilitate our goal of reaching the most people, we went with the trend and picked the most popular social networking sites.”

While their counties have chosen to use the social media tools in different ways, those using social media had words of wisdom and advice for other counties wanting to incorporate Web 2.0 tools in their communication plans.

Self said counties and officeholders interested in blogging should sleep on their postings.

“Go back and review, before publishing,” he said. “Sometimes you might write with emotion. And when you go back and look again you might see it with a more objective eye and it also allows you to make sure you have covered everything.”

Lambrecht said one common misconception or mistake a county may make is assuming rural residents aren’t using social media tools. Nowadays, farmers and retired lunch ladies can and do have cell phones connected to their Facebook accounts.

“Our world is a lot smaller and technology has arrived in even the remotest places of our planet,” she said.

Lambrecht stressed that counties about to begin using social media need to ask themselves a few questions first.

“What are you trying to say? Do you have the time to say it?” she said. “Think through your messaging. Social media is not expensive, but you need to commit to the plan, the time and the message. And you need policies in place and to set up a plan to enforce them.”

While commitment is needed, counties shouldn’t be scared of social media tools, Lockwood said, adding that the platforms allow taxpayers to easily see the activities of their local government. Often, the tools can be used to ensure residents that their tax dollars are being well cared for, as long as new content is posted regularly.

“Don’t just try for trying’s sake. This is what causes negative feelings,” he said. “Post pictures, safety awareness tips, meeting agendas. Make people want to come back and get information.”​


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