In just more than a decade of existence, Twitter has gone from being a fun place to get occasional updates from Shaq, to a foundational tool for local government to inform and engage with its citizens.
Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Texas, for example, notes that he personally finds his own contentious relationship with the governor of his state playing out in that space, in between steady updates from the president. In other words, Mayor Adler finds Twitter to be one of the most consequential arenas of public discourse, one that he and his administration take seriously.
And Mayor Adler is not alone.
In fact, use of social media within local government has become such a pressing topic, that it was the subject of a panel discussion earlier this week at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C. The discussion marked the first time since 2012 the event had hosted programming about social media, and, as such, a packed room turned out to listen at the Capital Hilton.
Adler moderated the panel, which included other mayors, and, perhaps most importantly, representatives from Twitter and Facebook who shared tips, tricks and advice for how best to use their sites, specifically tailored for local government. Indeed, both of the massive companies now have full-time staff dedicated to advising and interfacing with local government, so prominent has social media become in the space.
Lauren Devoll, a public policy associate with Twitter, gave a rapid-fire presentation that was filled with best practices. She started by reminding the officials that their tweets are now being used as direct sources for television reporting and articles online, giving them reach that extends far past users of the platform.
Devoll went into a series of very specific tips, including changing cover photos regularly; using a display name as valuable real estate; tweeting like an actual human talks; getting comfortable with threads; embracing first person media updates; and turning live photos into GIFs. The overarching message of her presentation seemed to be that really using Twitter as a real person might is vastly superior to just blasting out information in a stilted way to residents.
“Make your audience feel like you’re talking with them, and not just at them,” Devoll said.
One specific example of how to do that was to have a mayor post a picture of their dog, along with an invitation for residents to do the same, because, Devoll accurately noted, “Dogs are an easy win.”
So, while the idea that Twitter and Facebook are important tools for local government is certainly not new, a concept that emerged during the panel was that there are several different ways that local government continues to approach using the platforms, and that social media in local government continues to lack a series of accepted best practices — or at least best practices that are widely known and firmly in place.
Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt asked the mayors in the room how many of them had staff manage their social media accounts. A number of hands went up. He next asked how many of them take a personal interest in their social media while also having staff managing it. A roughly equal set of hands went up. Finally, he asked how many mayors do all of their social media themselves. Again, a number of hands went up.
Mayor Holt, he told the crowd, manages all three of the social media platforms that represent him himself: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The reason being that he finds it adds a higher level of authenticity. Sometimes, he very politely and very cautiously even corrects misinformation about the city that residents sometimes share online. Holt strongly suggested that mayors across the country do the same.
“You’d never let your staff put on a mask and run around town giving speeches for you,” Holt said. “Would you?”