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4 strategies that are defining the future of city communications

Communications directors from 54 cities met last week in New York to discuss how to stay ahead of the changing media landscape.

It wasn’t so long ago that a cutting-edge city hall communications team could brag that it sent out its press releases by fax.

Fast forward 30 years, and the city communications landscape has changed so much it would be unrecognizable to someone who left a decade ago. Local news outlets are imploding, new social media platforms keep popping up, and the 24-hour news cycle puts overstretched comms teams on a treadmill with no off switch.

This represents a huge challenge for city leaders, who — despite the shifting landscape — have to stay in touch with residents. It also represents a huge opportunity for those nimble enough to keep adapting to the times and stay on top of the technology.

Last week, Bloomberg Philanthropies brought 54 communications leaders from city halls in the U.S. and the U.K. to New York City to discuss these topics and more. In panel conversations, workshops, and one-on-ones, they traded tips on social media and storytelling, considered the changing media industry, and learned the latest and best practices for organizing a comms shop. Here are four strategies that emerged last week that are likely to reflect where the field of city-government communications is headed.

Leverage new opportunities to shape the narrative

Layoffs at local newspapers mean there are fewer reporters covering the city beat these days. Some city halls are responding by filling the void with their own content. Detroit, for example, recently hired journalist Aaron Foley as its “chief storyteller.” With a team of two writers, two videographers, and a photographer — and funding from a cable TV fee — Foley sets out to “uplift and amplify the stories of Detroiters who are doing good things.”

It’s, in part, because of the decline in local journalism that Foley said most people only hear one of two stories about Detroit: one that focuses on crime and poverty and the other that’s centered on downtown revitalization. His team’s stories bridge the space between those extremes by talking about small business owners, block leaders, and other everyday Detroiters. “We desperately need a platform where people can be seen and feel a part of the Detroit story,” he said.

While Detroit’s approach is unique, its goal of reaching residents directly, without a media filter, is not. For example, Miami is now redirecting resources from its little-watched cable TV channel toward short, shareable videos for social media. Likewise, when Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland decided to remove Confederate statues from his city, he spoke straight to residents via a “threaded tweet” on Twitter to explain the reasoning.

“Legacy media may be declining,” said Teddy Goff, the co-founder of Precision Strategies and the digital director of Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. “But with the social media explosion, suddenly you can reach more people with a tweet or a Facebook post than a well-placed story in the local paper.”

Hone a city’s listening skills

Social media makes two-way conversation with residents easier than ever. But that requires listening and engaging — not just using platforms to broadcast messages. “It’s a mindset shift, from that one-way communication to fostering a conversation,” said Beth Simone Noveck, director of the GovLab at New York University. “It takes real skill to know how to do that, and put that conversation together and focus it on solving a problem.”

A growing number of city communications offices have one or more staff dedicated to social media. Part of the job is is shaping content that residents will want to engage with. It’s also about responding to resident queries and concerns that come in over social media, and keeping an ear up for what topics they’re talking about on social media.

Increasingly, that means listening for — and correcting — misinformation that can spread faster than ever. Inbal Naveh Safir of ZenCity, an Israeli company that makes software for cities to monitor conversations happening on social media, cited a case from a California city. After a man fell to his death from a highway bridge, a buzz of errant speculation rose on social media that he had been murdered. Police were able to respond with the facts as they learned that was not true.

“Before it hit the 11 o’clock news as a murder story, the city could respond in real time and change the communication about it,” Safir said. “They also could reach citizens where they’re talking about the issue.”

Integrate communications and service delivery

The most innovative cities don’t see communications as something separate from the services the city delivers. Rather, they find ways to integrate the two.

Colin Crowell, vice president of global public policy for Twitter, described how the mayor of Jun, Spain, essentially runs city services on the social media platform. If a citizen sees a broken street light, they can tweet a picture with the address and tag the mayor. The mayor then tags the person in charge of fixing street lights, who responds with a photo when the light is fixed. “It’s a way of showing accountability,” Crowell said. “And also creates some vulnerability by having that accountability — you’ve got to follow through.”

That resonates with Dana Berchman, who as chief digital officer in Gilbert, Ariz., sits at the nexus of communications and digital government services. Her team took over 311, in part because they recognized that handling customer complaints is as much about closing communications feedback loops with citizens as it is about fixing potholes. Berchman also handles the marketing side of the city’s open-data portal and launched an avatar named Alex to help guide citizens through the available datasets.

“A lot of open-data portals end up in the IT department, but nobody uses them because they’re not marketed,” Berchman said. “What we’ve seen is we need the technologists to get the data ready for us on the back end, but they’re not the right ones to be running the front end.”

Think flexibly about platforms

The explosion of social media platforms requires nimble thinking about ways cities should engage on each. Goff’s advice: “Think about the role each platform plays in people’s lives.” For example, he said, Twitter is good for news. Facebook is more a place to speak about community values. And Instagram and Snapchat are venues where young users generally are not expecting to engage in politics. “Nothing could be worse than some old politician trying to speak in official-sounding ways on Snapchat,” he said.

What matters most for city leaders trying to break through on social media is authenticity. Crowell, of Twitter, noted that whatever one thinks of President Trump’s tweets, it’s easy to tell which ones are written by him and which are written by his staff. “The voice is distinctive,” he said. “When he tweets, people believe it’s him, and because of that journalists chase it, and it leaps in 30 seconds to ‘Morning Joe’ or ‘Fox and Friends.’ It’s because of the authenticity of the voice.”

At the local level, the newest player in the space is Nextdoor, a social network site for neighborhoods. According to Berchman, more than half of Gilbert’s 78,000 households are on Nextdoor, making it a powerful force for local government to tap into. Recently, when the city’s trash department considered changing its days of service, Berchman’s shop ran a citizen poll on Nextdoor and had almost 700 responses within a week. Another 158 people volunteered for a focus group on the topic. “What the data showed us was, overwhelmingly, our residents liked the trash service as it was — so don’t go changing it,” Berchman said.

“In social media in government, a lot of times it’s just someone’s job added onto what they were already doing, so they just take five minutes during their lunch break to do retweets,” Berchman continued. “That’s very reactive. You need to be proactively thinking about customizing your content, who you’re reaching, on what platforms, and at what time of day.”