In this series, guest columnists respond to one of three topics selected by ELGL co-founder Kent Wyatt. This week, Stephanie Taylor, Public Information Coordinator, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, writes about three strategies for connecting with the community. Sign up to be a guest columnist for this series.
One of the most challenging things I faced when stepping into my role as Carlisle Borough’s Public Information Coordinator actually turned out to be the most helpful. Not only was I new to the job, the job itself was new to Carlisle. I did not come in to fill anybody’s shoes; I am here to create the footprints. It has been challenging, but I also have the freedom to experiment and to see what methods work and do not work. I also never have to hear my least-favorite phrase, “Well, that’s how we’ve always done it.”
When I started my job, the Borough communicated through the occasional press release, its website, and a newsletter mailed out twice a year. While we still use those forms of communication, we have now expanded to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Nextdoor.
Finding the best and most effective ways to communicate to our residents is an evolving process. Every day I am thinking of ways to better disseminate the Borough’s message to the almost 19,000 people who live here. All the while, I am also trying to increase buy-in from staff who are not social media savvy and do not always see the importance of it.
Channeling My Inner Leslie Knope
I have a sign in my office that says, “Be the Leslie Knope of Whatever You Do.” That has been my work and life motto, even before entering public service. I get enthusiastic about things and throw myself into them fully, especially with work. I use this enthusiasm on both our staff and our residents.
With staff, I want to get them excited about sharing what they do with our residents. To our public works crews, fixing potholes, plowing snow, or repairing water main breaks are just a regular part of the job. To me, featuring the work they do is a great way to show residents how their tax dollars are actually used. Also, people tend to complain less when you actually show them the work being done! Passing on the positive feedback we receive really helps staff see the value of social media. Be sure not to overlook the less-than-glowing reviews, either. These comments can often point out areas that need improvement.
I also use this enthusiasm to share information about the more “boring” things we have to talk about it. If you told me five years ago that I would get excited for educating people about not placing fats, oils, and grease down the drain, I would have laughed in your face. However, I decided to have fun with it and created a social media campaign called “Sewer Stories: Tales from the Wastewater Treatment Plant.” It is a mixture of educational material, pop culture references, and actual stories from the lab supervisor about weird things people flushed down the toilet. If you can have fun while creating it, chances are your audience will have fun reading it.
Translating Government Speak
I needed a lot of help understanding things when I started this job. Sometimes I still need some help understanding things! If my job is to share the Borough’s message, I have to understand it. And if I don’t understand it, residents are probably not going to understand it either. I need to take the complex language of Borough code, ordinances, and resolutions and make it palatable for our audience.
We recently passed an ordinance amendment that gives volunteer firefighters and EMS a tax break if they live in the Borough. Here is how it was worded on the agenda:
“Borough Council may adopt an ordinance amending the Code of the Borough of Carlisle, with respect to Chapter 231, [Taxation] Article VIII Active Volunteer Service Tax Credit and furthermore, approve a Resolution establishing the annual criteria that a volunteer firefighter or emergency medical service technician must meet to be certified under the Volunteer Service Tax Credit Program.
I think it is fair to say that most people tuned out after “…respect to Chapter 231…” When I discussed the item on social media, here is what I said:
“Last night, Borough Council passed an ordinance creating the Volunteer Service Tax Credit program. This credit program is for active volunteer firefighters and emergency services technicians who live in Borough limits. This program aims to encourage membership and service in the volunteer fire companies and non-profit EMS agencies that help keep the Borough safe.”
If I can’t understand it at first glance, then surely our residents can’t either.
Engage, Engage, Engage
This is the simplest technique of all. Talk to people.
If your organization is not responding to comments and questions on social media, then you should not be using social media. Responding shows residents there is someone in government who is hearing their complaints and their concerns. They may not always like the answer you have for them, but you have at least heard them. Take the time to respond to even the trolls, when appropriate. It is possible to change people’s attitudes; I have succeeded once or twice myself. When you present people with the facts, they will often back down. I realize this may not work with every nasty commenter. You do have to know when to cut your losses and stop responding. Finally, don’t take it personally! It has taken me awhile to do this. Now, when we receive negative feedback, I channel my inner Leslie Knope again. “What I hear when I’m being yelled at is people caring loudly at me.”