In 2015, GOVERNING wrote an article on Roanoke titled “The City That Incorporated Social Media Into Everything.” Two years later, Roanoke became one of the first local governments in the country to create an Office of Citizen Engagement. But before we talk about where we’re going, it’s important to touch on where we’ve been.
In early 2008, the city launched its first Facebook page. By 2013, the city had more than 30 social media accounts. But during the initial growth, there was little coordination between departments about what to post and how to post it. The city’s main Facebook page was mainly a source for posting news releases. While it had gained more than 15,000 followers, there was little interaction. When I came onboard in late 2013 and looked at the numbers, I quickly realized Roanoke had something special. We had a community that was ready to engage with its government.
After retooling the main city pages with daily posts, campaigns, humor, citizen participation, and around-the-clock customer service, we brought social media managers together for regular meetings designed to show new social tools and brainstorm ideas. In 2015, we launched a social media center at roanoke.uberflip.com. This one-stop-shop gives citizens access to all of our accounts in one easy location.
Roanoke now has more than 50 social media pages and 180,000 followers on all of those pages combined. Our main city Facebook page just hit 80,000 likes. Not bad for a city with a popular of 99,000.
Last year, our social media reach on all pages combined hit 25 million. The city’s main Facebook page received 2.9 million likes, comments, and shares on all posts last year. Thanks to Facebook Live, videos were viewed more than 1.5 million times.
In January, City Manager Chris Morrill and I had a conversation about citizen engagement. It had been on his mind for a while, mine too. One thing that I haven’t faced in Roanoke that others have around the country is a hesitation by leadership to take chances on social media. Morrill and other leaders in the city not only took chances, they embraced and encouraged the creativity that I and other social media managers brought to the table.
Imagine a resident, sitting at home, with a question about something happening in the city. In Roanoke, many of those residents now know they don’t have to pick up the phone or wait until offices open the next day to find an answer. All they have to do is send us a private message, and in many cases, they’ll get a response within an hour, seven days a week.
This shouldn’t scare leaders. Negative comments shouldn’t scare leaders. The ability to allow citizens to feel one with their government shouldn’t scare leaders. Engaging citizens allows local governments to foster collaborative conversations and create new innovative ways for citizens to get involved. Social media, its advancements, and other digital platforms have provided Roanoke the opportunity to communicate “with” citizens instead of “to” them. These days, that’s what it’s all about, that’s what’s expected.
That’s why in March, we officially launched the Office of Citizen Engagement. This office separates traditional and non-traditional forms of communication. This new role allows me to focus solely on our success on social media, our website, iROANOKE citizen request app, as well as work with key employees who need engagement for programs and projects to be successful. We’ll also bring neighborhood groups and outside organizations into the fold to use what’s we’ve built so far to further advance our engagement efforts.
I’m extremely proud of the fact that we have some of the most engaged citizens in the country. I’m also proud of the fact that our organization realized it, accepted it, and adapted to it.