Reaching out

Changing our look: Buncombe County’s website, soon to undergo an overhaul as part of county government’s effort to better communicate with the public.

Asheville and Buncombe County are all a-Twitter. Both local governments are looking to ramp up their online presence, taking advantage of social media to enhance their communications capabilities.

For its part, the city has recently shifted staff as part of an ongoing effort to boost its social media involvement and add another dimension to community relations. Former Asheville Police Department spokesperson Melissa Williams is moving into a general community-relations role overseeing the city’s blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts; Lt. Wally Welch will step up as the APD’s new public-information liaison.

“We’ve found there’s a lot of value in using as many platforms as we can to communicate with the public,” notes city spokesperson Dawa Hitch. “We saw an opportunity there where we could redefine Melissa Williams’ previous role to include keeping up with the blog, Twitter and Facebook. There’s a lot we need to do there, and having Melissa Williams join the community-relations team opens up the space for us to do that.”

Over the past two years, the city has relied on outside contractors to help develop its social media efforts.

Buncombe County, meanwhile, has limited its online presence to a website plus central Twitter and YouTube accounts. That's about to change, however, Clerk to the Board Kathy Hughes reports.

“We are so excited: It vastly changes what we've got,” Hughes says about an upcoming website overhaul. “And social media is front and center. Everything you should need, you'll only need one click to get there.”

The county aims to have the retooled site up and running by April 15.

Former Xpress reporter Brian Postelle has been running the city’s social media efforts on a one-year contract that expires March 24. Hitch praised Postelle’s work “getting our program off the ground, assessing what things the community found useful. … He’s done an amazing job with us.”

Toes in the water

After Williams leaves, Welch will take over as the APD’s public-information officer, assisted by Special Projects Coordinator Kendra Turner.

“It’s really just been a reorganizing — just identifying where we can be most efficient with our resources,” Hitch reveals.

Hughes, meanwhile, says the updated county website will make accessing its social media activity much easier. “You're going to see our links to Facebook, Twitter and all that in the center,” she explains. “People will be able to post comments there. We won't respond to them on the social media, but we do respond.”

In addition, says Hughes, “We've overhauled our YouTube channel to make it more useful, and you'll see video all through the site as well.”

As for the city, says Hitch, “We have our toes in the water as far as social media. I foresee, in the future, we’ll step that up a level, and there will be more accessibility. Do we have the time and resources to have someone sit and answer tweets and posts all day long? We don’t. It’s just a small part of everything we do in community relations. But it has a big impact, and we recognize that.”

Specific plans are still being worked out. Will the APD, for example, follow the lead of the Fire Department and the city itself by establishing an informational Twitter account?

“We’ll have to assess the need — and whether we’re doing other things that we’ll stop if we move in that direction,” Hitch reports. “Working with the media and the community to identify what kinds of information will be useful to them. We need to think about where there’s overlap: We don’t want to create any redundancies.”

“In the next six months,” she adds, “we’ll be looking to hear from the public on what they want — on whether it’s better for us to be decentralized or have everything on the city of Asheville home page. We’ll have to feel that out.”

The county has so far opted for a centralized approach. Asked if it might expand its Twitter presence beyond a single account, for example, Hughes says: “Right now, we're funneling everything through here. As we get more used to it and see what more people are interested in, that certainly may expand. It's been really popular, considering we haven't pushed it at all.”

The county is holding off on actively promoting its social media efforts until the new website debuts next month. “Hopefully, we'll get a lot of feedback on what we could do better,” notes Hughes.

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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