Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jul-Aug 2017 issue

Message Matters: #EngageCitizens: Cities Get Creative with Social Media

By Mary Jane Smetanka

When the City of Cottage Grove had a “visioning session” last fall to talk with residents about the city’s future, leaders decided to try something a little different. Instead of asking people to come to City Hall, they came to residents—via Facebook Live.

They were extremely happy with the results. “We had 53A picture and message posted by the City of Plymouth on Facebook announcing a dog park naming contest and asking for name ideas. people viewing live,” says Communications Coordinator Sharon Madsen. “We’d be ecstatic if 53 people came to a town hall meeting!”

Like other Minnesota cities, Cottage Grove has tried to involve its nearly 36,000 residents in major city discussions, but turnout at traditional meetings has never been great, Madsen says. “People are busy, so we’re trying to reach them where they are.”

Another great aspect of Facebook Live is that once the live session is over, it continues to be available on the city Facebook page. More than 3,000 people have viewed the recording. (You can watch it, too, at www.facebook.com/CottageGroveMinnesota.)

Cottage Grove’s Facebook Live use is just one of the myriad ways Minnesota cities are using social media to build community, market their city, get people involved in city affairs, and shape the city’s image.

Now that social media has established a presence in most people’s daily lives, it’s not unusual for a city to have some sort of social media account, but the level of activity—and creativity—varies from city to city.

Expanding a city’s reach
Sometimes the use of social media is strategic and carefully crafted by city officials; in smaller cities, social media activity is often driven by one committed employee. In Plymouth, staff and city councilmembers met in a study session to plan use of social media tools. The city uses Twitter to promote everything from parks to concerts and other events to its nearly 75,000 residents. It uses hashtags—for example, #PlymouthParks for pictures of people using parks, and #PlymouthProud to promote local businesses—on both Twitter and Facebook. (See their pages at https://twitter.com/PlymouthMN_gov and www.facebook.com/plymouthmn.)

The city built awareness of two of its dog parks by running a naming contest on Facebook. About 75 names were submitted by 44 people, and the posts were viewed by more than 2,300 people.

“It showed the city has a sense of fun,” says Communications Manager Helen LaFave. But Plymouth still views the city newsletter that goes to every household and business as the primary source of information for residents.

“Facebook is used for promotion and to drive people back to the city website. We don’t generate a ton of new content there,” LaFave says. “These are auxiliary tools. Social media allows us to be less formal with people, and it gives us the opportunity to reach out today. We have many more people who tend to be engaged and motivated to learn about the city [through social media].”

Small city engagement
In little Madison, the county seat of Lac Qui Parle County with a population of 1,489, deputy clerk Cheri Tuckett is the Facebook presence of her city. “It’s my favorite part of my job,” she says.

Madison promotes its Facebook page on the city’s website as a way for people to stay in touch with the city. Tuckett wanted to get more “likes” on the Facebook page than the number of Madison residents, and she’s surpassed that goal—the page has more than 1,700 likes as of this writing. (Visit the page at www.facebook.com/City-of-Madison-MN-106941826001888.)

Tuckett usually posts three times a week about events like city clean-up day and garage sale day and news about local businesses. The posts that generally draw the most comments and shares are historical photos of things like horse-drawn snowplows.

But the post that grabbed the most attention was about a memorial bench program the city started last year. People can buy a bench for $1,000, have it engraved with a name, and choose a location for the bench. Tuckett posted a picture of a bench that was purchased to remember a firefighter. It had 14,000 views and was shared almost 60 times.

“That’s huge!” Tuckett says. “It definitely drew attention, showing that we care about our people, that we’re not a stagnant city, and that we’re moving ahead and trying new things. I’m trying to market our city; it’s where my heart is.”

Making personal connections
West St. Paul, which has a population just over 20,000, uses Twitter and Facebook. It has a city Facebook page (www.facebook.com/cityofwsp) and a separate Police Department page (www.facebook.com/WestStPaulPD). The city uses the pages for the usual promotional and informational purposes, says Marketing and Communications Coordinator Dan Nowicki, but a lot of their more creative social media activity has focused on the police.

“One thing we’ve really concentrated on is highlighting ourA video posted on Facebook by the West St. Paul Police Department of a police officer giving a tour of the police department. officers as real people,” Nowicki says. “I’ve done virtual ridealong [videos], funny parody videos, stupid pictures, etc. to help our residents connect on a personal level. This really helps people understand who our officers are.”

For example, one post was a video that followed an officer while he was on patrol during a night-time shift. The post introduces the video like this: “OFFICER SPOTLIGHT: Check out a night in the life of Officer Syvertsen. Get to know a little bit more about night shift and the department from inside a squad car!!”

The 5-minute video includes footage of Officer Curtis Syvertsen talking casually about why he became a police officer, conducting a routine traffic stop that resulted in a warning for a non-working headlight, and arresting a woman who was in possession of stolen property. It had more than 9,000 views, 89 likes, 20 shares, and 11 very positive comments.

Another video is a humorous parody of the popular MTV show “Cribs,” with Officer Pat McCarty giving a tour of his “crib,” the Police Department. This 4-minute video had over 38,000 views, 129 likes and other reactions, 131 shares, and eight comments about how funny the video was. Its most popular video of all time to date? Edited footage from an actual squad car video of a drug bust with a bit of a twist—1.2 million views. The video, called “Meth Toss,” was posted on April 13 of this year. (You can find it on the department’s Facebook page to see why it’s such a crowd-pleaser.)

A place to talk with residents
Hastings, too, uses social media—including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—to give the city a human face. Communications Coordinator Lee Stoffel says reaction has been especially strong to posts that focus on employees and volunteers.

“People on social media can sometimes be very critical,” she says. “So we try to talk about how people do their job day in and day out when it’s raining or snowing, and how people have families. It’s humanizing government.”

Facebook is a place to have a conversation with residents, Stoffel adds. Some of Hastings’ 23,000 residents use instant messaging on the site to ask questions or report issues. (Check out the page at www.facebook.com/CityofHastings.)

“It’s not there just to announce meetings,” she says. “My philosophy is to [use social media] to make it clear that government can be interesting, and to focus on community pride. People start to connect to us, so when I have something really important to announce, I can use that. Now we get comments when we don’t put something on Facebook.”

In Cottage Grove, where they also have Twitter and Instagram accounts, the city’s use of Facebook Live began with a 20-second Arbor Day scene of a forester talking about proper tree planting as he planted a tree. To Madsen’s surprise, 800 people watched the clip either live or after it was archived on the page. A Facebook Live broadcast of the groundbreaking for a new restaurant got 8,000 views.

“We don’t want to overuse it; we don’t want it to lose its effectiveness,” Madsen says. “But people are really interested.”

Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer

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