The Future of City Communications

A solid social media strategy has the ability to humanize government, boost transparency, and get the city hall closer to the residents. What are some of the do's and don'ts to help cities on this journey?

6.5 minutes
The Future of City Communications

The onset of social media has changed the city communications landscape tremendously. Cities can now reach more people with a tweet or a Facebook post than a cover story in a local paper. City leaders must adjust to the new reality of the 24-hour news cycle. At the same time, they need to actively engage with their residents and respond to their needs.

To fully encourage resident trust and engagement, here are some of the best practices from across the U.S. to make government communications future-proof.

Shaping the Narrative

In the era of social media and multi-channel communications, it is important to develop consistent messaging and audience-focused content. Consciously creating a positive and realistic story of a city can have an enormous impact on residents’ relationship towards their city and those who govern it.

A unique approach towards reshaping the city’s narrative comes from Detroit. Mayor Mike Duggan hired a Chief Storyteller, journalist Aaron Foley, to fight against the outdated tales of a city plagued by industrial decay, race riots, and violence.

Foley said most people only hear one of two stories about Detroit: one that focuses on crime and poverty, and the other centered on downtown revitalization. To counterbalance these narratives, his team shines the light on small business owners, block leaders, and other regular Detroiters. During his tenure, Foley launched and edited The Neighborhoods, a digital platform with an all-Black millennial staff where city residents, usually overlooked by local media coverage, can share their stories.

Considering how quickly misinformation and inaccurate content spreads online, having control over the government’s narrative is more important than ever. Cities have an important role to play as community leaders and should ensure the information on their social media is trustworthy. At the very least, this means checking sources before posting news articles and deleting false and inflammatory information from their pages.

For example, in March 2017, Las Vegas experienced an unexpected wind storm that prompted some news outlets to report that the airport was closed. The city’s social media team was quick to set the record straight with a retweet from McCarran Airport’s official Twitter account and the hashtag #VegasWind.

Engagement: A Two-Way Street

Social media make a two-way conversation with residents easier than ever before. However, cities have to actively listen and talk to their residents. Using the platforms only for ‘broadcasting’ won’t have the intended effect.

Besides publishing community news and updates, cities’ social media managers need to actively respond to resident queries that come through social media. This way, government social media accounts can also serve as a way for officials to be more transparent.

City social media managers should focus on creating visually appealing content in the form of videos, infographics, follower photos, and memes. Visual-based posts are among the most shared across social media and are the key ingredient for successful engagement.

To humanize the government and become more relatable, cities shouldn’t hesitate to drop the serious tone and post fun content. Getting closer to the residents should be the ultimate goal of any government-led social media strategy.

Multiple Channels vs. Integration

Research shows that people process information differently. This is why communication across multiple channels is so important. One person might react to a notification on social media; the other one prefers personalized email. However, the myriad of channels might cause confusion both for administrators and residents.

To find a good communication strategy that works for all, the cities should keep in mind the growing number of mobile users.  In fact,  the smartphone penetration rate in the U.S. has continuously risen over the past ten years. In 2011, only 35 percent of all U.S. adults owned a smartphone. As of February 2021, already 85 percent of adults became smartphone owners.

As a result, mobile applications that integrate several communication channels in one spot can be a win-win solution. This approach was used by the city of Menlo Park, which is using the Simplicity application. The app integrates not only the city’s social media channels and the website but also includes features such as announcements, events, a ‘report a problem’ button, and many others. Through the app, the cities can often reach up to 20 % of locals.

Celebrating Data Wins

When shaping a city narrative, communication teams should show how data improves city governance. What these victories look like can vary from city to city. Examples can range from a data-intensive predictive fire risk model in New Orleans to Louisville’s platform analyzing data to improve traffic conditions and road safety.

How to do it? Communication teams can publish a press release in local media about the current milestones in the city’s data-driven projects, for example about launching an open data portal. They can also accompany city announcements on any topic with maps, charts, or infographics. These can then be presented on social media,  in the annual reports, or during town halls.

Publishing blog posts is yet another avenue. These can be as short as 500 words – no need to write a book. City staff could write something about a particular challenge you’re addressing with data, like this piece from San Jose, or this one from Denver.

To leverage the power of social media,  city managers should encourage their front-line data teams to post about their work. For example, Kansas City tweets under the hashtag #KCStat during performance management meetings. If possible, cities should create visually attractive posts showing results related to the use of data, such as the amount of money saved. Or host an online town hall or a virtual chat with Chief Data Officer and/or  Mayor to answer questions from the community.

Best practices in city governance need to be visible and widely recognized – only then can the forward-looking mayors and their teams keep focusing on initiatives that bring real public value.