Social Media and the City – Spending a day with City of Calgary Communicators

posted by Brendan Hodgson

A month or so ago, the good people at the City of Calgary invited me to participate in a day-long session on the impact of social media and local government.

Over the course of the event, which happened last week and was co-organized by the City’s Corprate Marketing and Communications (CMC) division and its Customer Service and Communications Communication Partners Services (CPS) Division, I presented twice: first, to a group of 70+ city managers on the implications of social media as it related to such areas as trust, transparency, and the role of emerging technologies in transforming the relationships between the City, its citizens, and its employees. In the afternoon, I presented a second time to a similarly-sized group of communicators and marketers on social media and reputation management… with a focus on crisis.

From the perspective of this participant, it was an impressive exercise in mass education and immersion into the new communications dynamic, and one that I have rarely seen undertaken within a public sector organization at any level previously (although that’s not to say these events are not happening elsewhere. I just haven’t heard about them).

And it makes sense, particularly as it relates to municipal government. In the same way we tend to ignore local politics despite the fact that it often impacts our daily lives more so than any other level of government, the current emphasis on social media and PR tends to skew toward the more sexy interactions between consumers and brands at the expense of government-citizen engagement, which is perhaps where the potential for social media is even greater. When you look at tragic events such as this (recognizing that this was captured within the confines of Vancouver Airport, although it involved federal law enforcement, but hopefully you get my point), or this, or this, the implications of citizen journalism and social media to impose transparency on the behaviours of government – at any level – are only further reinforced. 

The next day, I joined a smaller group of 20 or so communicators, web team members and others to brainstorm ideas on where the City might focus some of its efforts in the areas of social media – from both internal and external perspectives, including a discussion on the role of social media in times of crisis (which is a discussion that I seem to be having increasingly often). And while obstacles clearly existed, the will to find ways to overcome these obstacles – political or otherwise – was also evident, and refreshing to see.

I figure that my role in this exercise was perhaps the easiest – to put it bluntly, instill fear and motivate people to action. And I think that was accomplished. The hard part, in my view – and the role of City communicators – will be to drive this forward, and to help Managers better understand these tools, develop meaningful strategies that integrate old and new while remaining relevant to and focused on their respective business lines, and (most importantly, in my view) to manage expectations as it relates to how these tools will impact what the City does now. Likewise, they will also need to educate elected officials on the benefits of these tools and the need to embrace a more open and transparent approach to communications and engagement, and work with legal teams to determine how best to accelerate approvals and turnaround times and provide clear direction on what should and should not be done as it relates to social media, particularly in times of crisis.

No small undertaking. But based on the collective enthusiasm I witnessed last week, I wouldn’t bet against this team being able to pull it off.

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