Local government embraces social media frontier

Facebook me.

 

It’s not a phrase you would expect to hear from your county government, but as Athens-Clarke County officials experiment with social media like Facebook and Twitter, it just might become more prevalent.

 

Public Information Officer Sandi Turner created an official Twitter account for Athens-Clarke County six months ago. Twitter is a social networking tool that sends short, 140-character messages to a user’s Twitter connections. So far the county’s account, @accgov, has 48 followers and is used to send out information about special events and general announcements. Turner was most recently commended on the Twitter coverage of leaf and limb pick-up changes after the snowstorm damage two weeks ago.

 

Turner said she and other officials have turned to social media because it targets a very specific demographic- those living in the county who are interested in receiving updates- and is done in an interactive way that engages users. Twitter and Facebook are more user-friendly than tedious .gov Web sites.

 

Denise Plemmons, special projects manager for the Athens Area Humane Society, said she created a Facebook group for the animal shelter three years ago because it is an inexpensive way to communicate with locals. She is joined by Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services, public safety officials, political candidates, and other local civic organizations hoping to use Facebook’s cheap promotion.

 

Support Athens Area Humane Society, which has a whopping membership of 809, features adoption photos, event information, and a discussion board. Postings on the board suggest many have made themselves at home on the site, posting personal stories and advice about pet ownership. Members post links to information and videos about cats and dogs, inquiries about lost pets, and impassioned pleas to get more people involved in countless events and organizations benefiting animals.

 

Plemmons said the Facebook group is used by members to make contacts, post messages about animal concerns and provide feedback to the shelter.

 

“We can also quickly get information out to hundreds of people at one time,” Plemmons said.

 

Kristine Kobylus, the program education specialist in the Athens-Clarke County Recycling Division, started a Facebook group in mid-January that has garnished over 100 members in just two months. The group, simply titled Athens-Clarke County Recycling Division, offers photos, a plethora of event information, an informational video, and a selection of recycling articles that might be of interest to members.

 

 “We recently found that ages 24 to 35 are our target market because they recycle the least,” Kobylus said. “Facebook is a way to reach those people and to reach those who might be a few years younger so we can catch them earlier.”

 

She checks the discussion board and message inbox daily to read feedback on what locals want from their recycling program.

 

Dr. Karen Russell, associate professor of public relations at the University of Georgia who includes social media topics in her courses, said the ability to target makes social media particularly appealing to any organization.

 

“People sign themselves up, so you reach the people most interested,” said Russell. “Animal control is going to reach people who love dogs and they can be influential because they care the most.”

 

She believes consumers will like the fact that government organizations are “twittering.” They can receive all the information they are interested in at one central location without having to actively search for it or wait for a newspaper or neighborhood newsletter to publish it.

 

According to http://www.compete.com, which compiles data on Web site traffic, Twitter had nearly 8 million unique visitors in February of 2009, while Facebook had more than 73 million.

Their popularity is clearly on an incline, so it is no surprise that Athens-Clarke County is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, to jump on the networks.

 

Several branches and officials in the national government have been on social networks for years. Twitterers can follow the Environmental Protection Agency (@greenversations), the White House (@TheWhiteHouse), The Food and Drug Administration (@foodrecalls), NASA (@NASA), Barack Obama (@BarackObama) and hundreds other elected officials. Fulton County also has an account (@FultonInfo), as well as the Atlanta Journal Constitution (@ajc).

 

The police department in Scottsdale, Arizona, has even begun using Twitter to alert citizens of emergencies. According to The Arizona Republic, officials “tweet” news about crime, road closures, and immediate notices about safety issues.

Turner said Athens-Clarke County is far from using Twitter to alert of emergencies.

 

“We see it as an exciting possibility, but entering the issue very cautiously,” Turner said. “There are a lot of issues to consider: who is legally qualified to release emergency information on Twitter? Do we change the message as the situation changes? We don’t want to cause panic or give a false sense of security.”

 

She said they are still in the learning stages and want to move slowly.

 

So far, they have chosen not to participate in Facebook because of the lack of control over pop-up ads. According to “Tweets Fly Over Web Plan,” an online article at www.nytimes.com, there was a debate last July in the House of Representatives over the issue of censorship of House members on social media sites. Some believe politicians should be restricted in the use of the networks because of advertising. They argue political messages could seem like endorsements and say officials could inadvertently be placed next to ads for Viagra. As of now, the restrictions are few.

 

Russell added that having a presence of government on these sites may actually provide incentive for people to post more negative things than they otherwise would. An organization could end up with an overall poor online image.

 

Although no one can predict where local and national governments will take social media, it is certain that their presence will have an impact.

 

“We will all have to watch and see where it goes,” Russell said.

 

 

 

 

SIDEBAR

 

Twitter is a social networking and bloggling site birthed in 2006 that enables users to send and read other users’ updates, 140-character bits known as “tweets.” The tweets of an account a user is “following” are posted to the home page of the user, so he or she can follow the updates of multiple accounts. To signify an account name, the @ symbol is placed before the username, for example, the Army’s account is @USArmy, and the state of Georgia is @Georgia.

 

Facebook is a free-access social networking website launched in February of 2004. It has been hugely popular boasting tens of millions of users. Members can join groups, post and view photos, download and create a variety of applications, and communicate through discussion boards and private messages.

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