Kudos to the city of Asheville for inviting “social media experts” for Wednesday’s roundtable discussion of its new media initiatives. But the city’s approach feels too old-school and limited. To work in Asheville, social media can’t be approached in the same way as a traditional initiative.
Local governments around the country are trying to find ways to incorporate social media into the way they operate in order to improve the dissemination of information to their citizens and to engage in dialogue in a way that meets the citizens’ needs (and keeps them happy ‘til election time, it should be noted). Asheville, given that there’s already a connected, tech-savvy shard of the population here, seems a natural fit for the city’s social-media initiative.
Among City Council members, opinions vary about social media. Council member Gordon Smith acquired much of the notoriety that helped get him elected through his use of social media and he remains an active Tweeter. At the other end of the spectrum, Mayor Terry Bellamy has expressed skepticism about the need for the city to invest in social media during tight financial times. Naturally, her remarks to this effect at a budget work session found their way onto Twitter.
On Wednesday, the city announced that, with the help of consultants, including local media maven Justin Belleme, it was nearing the end of “Phase 1” of its social media plan, including setting up a central city blog. However, the social part of the plan apparently doesn’t kick in until “Phase 2” (for another take on this, see Jason Sandford’s Citizen-Times column). In the meantime, the city is using its blog in a fairly old-fashioned way.
That’s where I raise a red flag.
First, let’s face it, there are no “social media experts,” because the field’s simply too young to have the degree of expertise you’d associate with most professions. At best, there’s some very talented, driven amateurs who have just enough experience to know some of what works and what doesn’t. Justin’s quite good, as are the rest of the crew the city’s gathered for its social media efforts (including my former colleague Brian Postelle). But this isn’t a science, and likely never will be. Those who are good at it will continue for some time to learn mostly by trial and error.
However, the city isn’t treating its social media project like the uncharted-but-important territory that it is. It’s using an old approach, in which you hire expert consultants, get their suggestions, then follow them, mapping the plan into neat “phases” to contain and manage spending and manpower.
That approach isn’t very well-suited to social media. One of the reasons so many people use Twitter, for example, is that it’s so easy to set up and maintain, connecting users to an extensive social circle with great ease and speed. Like Twitter, a social media plan should capitalize on these attributes.
The city could take a note from the Asheville Fire Department’s approach. The AFD already maintains a basically useful Twitter feed. Though it just uses it to distribute information, It’d be good to see at least the same effort from the police, as well as Parks and Recreation. Given that setting up and maintaining a basic Twitter account is fairly easy, why aren’t these city operations aren’t yet on Twitter? We don’t need a phase one or two when aggressively jumping into the ongoing conversation and trying out new approaches in social media works far better. The city, just like the so-called social media “experts,” needs to get used to learning by doing.
For example, it would take only a moment for a city staffer to put up a fugitive’s picture onto a police Twitter feed or Facebook. When done well, social media will do the rest, as people around the community spread the word without further effort from the city.
One last thing: Those who are already plugged into the Internet’s social-media platforms are, in many ways, the ones who least need government’s social-media outreach, because they are a population that was already relatively well informed before tools like Twitter and Facebook came along. What’s more, this group is also just a small subset of the overall population. At some point, the city needs to make a concerted push to inform a much broader swath of the population.
Otherwise, however, well intended, all these social media efforts will end up as more flash than substance.