Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a WGLT series on government's use of social media. Coming Wednesday: WGLT examines how governments respond when social media creates controversy.
Social media has become such a dominant force in much of our lives that it’s become nearly impossible to avoid.
We use it to reconnect with friends, make new ones, buy and sell products and yes, sometimes wage political debates.
Those who mind our tax dollars are also getting into the social media space more and more, and like the rest of us, they are learning as they go.
When Matt Swaney heard that a refurbished Normal Fire Department engine caught fire on the interstate in January of last year, he knew that would be his version of a five-alarm blaze.
Swaney is the Normal Fire Department’s public information officer. An increasingly big part of that job is managing the department’s social media platforms.
If something like this had happened when Swaney started working for the department in 2010, it’s likely few would have even noticed. But in this digital age where nearly everyone has a camera in their pocket and instant access to the online world, it became an instant social media firestorm.
“Before I could even get back to my desk, there were pictures and video of our fire engine on the side of the road burning up,” Swaney recalled. “It’s not something we can hide. It’s our fire engine on fire.”
So Swaney did what any self-respecting social media manager would do. He owned it.
“We had to get in front of it and we put up a post that said unfortunately the rumors are true, we lost a fire engine this morning to a fire. While it’s ironic and sad, we still had to put the information out because it’s out there anyway, we might as well be a part of the conversation.”
The Normal Fire Department’s social media platforms include the standards (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and a neighborhood app called Nextdoor. NFD has one of the most active social media accounts among government agencies in McLean County, posting pictures from fire scenes, relaying weather alerts and putting out your basic safety reminders, such as turning on your headlights when it’s raining.
That kind of content might be an essential part of what public safety agencies do, but that doesn’t generally attract eyeballs, especially in the online world where content blasts like water out of a firehose.
In a medium where snark often rules, you have to say something that gets readers attention.
“I’d like to claim I’m a funny person,” claimed John Fermon, public information officer for the Bloomington Police Department.
Fermon manages the department’s social media. He's a uniformed officer with a marketing degree from Illinois State University.
“This is how I think of it. When you are scrolling through, would you stop by or not, and if I say not, you probably need to do something that captures somebody’s attention,” he said.
A scroll of BPD’s Facebook page shows lots of cat memes, funny misadventures and words of wisdom from Yoda.
These are all lighthearted attempts to convey important points, but there’s the serious too.
Social media has become a primary way for law enforcement to get the public’s help in investigating cases, especially through an app BPD joined late last year called Neighbors. Ring.com makes the app. Similar to Nextdoor, police and even people in your neighborhood can post crime alerts and other safety information. Users can upload video from a home security camera.
Fermon said when the department posts photos of suspects they are looking for, they often get replies from the public within minutes, sometimes seconds, that can help them make an arrest. He said BPD has had been 15 to 20 cases where a social media post directly led to an arrest. He suspects apps like Neighbors will help that number grow.
“That could be the ideal spot for ‘help identifies,’” Fermon said. “People could be like, ‘I’m sitting in bed, I wonder if I can identify anybody in these cases.’ We could probably put more information on those help identifies because if we do it a bunch on Facebook it’s just going to become noise.”
So how does a public body measure how effective its use of social media is?
Nora Dukowitz, communications manager for the City of Bloomington, said the city is still defining those metrics. But make no mistake, she said social media must do more than satisfy some broad concept of public awareness.
The city seeks tangible benefits.
“We are not necessarily using it just to drive information or just to get information out there. We are using this for business purposes also,” Dukowitz said. “We want to sell tickets to the BCPA, we want to get visits to the zoo. Those are real business models.”
The Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts and Miller Park Zoo are just two of many city-run entities that run their own social media. The city also offers a free MyBloomington app where residents can report things like potholes, public nuisances and requests for bulk waste pickup.
Coming up with a true cost-benefit analysis can be difficult, but seeing what works and what doesn’t is easily attainable, especially for someone like Nate Carpenter. He runs the Social Media Analytics Command Center, or SMACC lab, at Illinois State University.
“If you are an organization like a municipality or an emergency management agency or even somebody in public office, if you are going to reach your constituency, it’s hard to compete,” Carpenter said.
As you might expect, funny rules online. The Town of Normal’s most popular post ever, is the Great Wild Turkey Crossing, a photoshopped image of wild turkeys crossing Jersey Avenue on April Fool’s Day. It’s been shared more than 470 times.
Carpenter said municipalities use this type of content to get people to follow, so they are more likely to see the next traffic alert or boil order.
“I think that’s what we have come to expect culturally, that this really ought to be a space that gets information out and that’s about it, but there’s an expectation too that – at least culturally right now, that we be either entertained or that we also share a common culture,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter said many larger corporations have full-time social media managers or entire staffs that can help build a company’s brand and fill much of the vacuum online. That’s generally not something a city or a fire department can do for example, but Carpenter argues too many companies treat it as a side job.
“You can’t expect to grab an intern from your local university or community college and assume that they are going to be able to maintain everything. You have to be able to get those people training,” he said. “I realize budgets are tight, but people who are in the role of managing those social media accounts are going to be seen by more people than are reading your press releases.”
Dukowitz said she spends about 25 percent of her work time managing Bloomington’s social media, but that's much more than posting content, there’s responding to questions and feedback and monitoring other sites.
The challenge she said is managing all that in the confines of a city hall that generally operates on a 9-to-5 philosophy while some city services, like police and fire, are 24-7. So what should the expectations be?
“That’s an evolving area,” Dukowitz said. “All of our social media accounts do have a disclaimer on them that we aren’t monitoring them 24-7. We just don’t have the resources to be able to do that.
“However, we are also aware that (for) some people that is their most comfortable way of communicating.”
Sometimes they are relaying an emergency when they should be calling 9-1-1.
BPD's John Fermon said that happens about once a week, though not as much as he had feared initially. He said he makes it a point to respond as quickly as he can if it’s an emergency.
“It would be terrible if we didn’t reply,” Fermon said. “It would be like coming to the police department and knocking on the window and nobody comes out and replies to you. So we try to get to them as soon as we can.”
Another element to monitoring social media is responding when the conversation turns nasty or personal. That can easily happen when police departments show someone’s mug shot or posts an arrest.
“Some of the crime-related posts that we have, there might be 500 comments,” Fermon explained. “I try to look as best I can. If anybody personally attacks somebody … we’ve got a long page of what the pages rules are but we also have to look at First Amendment rights.”
Fermon said the department generally draws the line at vulgarity or threats. Repeat offenders will get blocked, which Fermon said has only happened a handful of times.
While social media managers constantly have one eye on what people are saying about them online, they also have to keep an eye toward the future. While 70 percent of U.S. adults are on Facebook, no one know how long it will be around or what the next big app will be, but they must continue looking for new ways to reach their audience.
Matt Swaney with Normal Fire said the department could soon start experiment with live video from fire or crash scenes, which some fire departments in major cities are doing.
“We don’t have 100% (certainty) on how we are going to manage this yet,” Swaney conceded. “It’s just something we are looking at doing and we’ve seen other fire departments doing it. If somebody’s doing it right and they are getting good feedback on it, then it’s something we can try and see if it works here.”
Swaney said a major obstacle would be protecting someone’s medical privacy.
For now though, the Normal Fire Department and Bloomington Police Department view their social media platforms as a public image tool.
Fermon said he hopes social media can break down barriers just like he tried to do when he started as an officer on the streets.
“Most of us are just good people trying to do the best we can for the community,” Fermon said. “We want to show that angle. Because a lot of the times, police officers are portrayed as the principal of the school or the disciplinarian.
“Nobody wants to talk to the police because you are probably in trouble.”
Swaney said part of that humanizing approach involves having a little fun at their colleagues’ expense.
“The cops don’t get offended when we make a picture of one of their squad cars with donut wheels,” Swaney replied. “Then they take it and they run pictures of the fire department asleep on recliners. It’s the back-and-forth kind of thing.
“It’s fun. We have a mutual respect for each other, but we can still poke fun at each other too.”
Swaney said photos are better than text online, and videos are better than photos, but what ultimately works online is what tugs at the heartstrings.
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