How Not to Do Social Media: Local Government Edition

As you might have noticed about a month ago on June 3, Orange County (finally!) joined Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to enhance their social media presence and public engagement/outreach.

I say in an attempt because if you've been following the County's Twitter or Facebook, you've probably realized just how awful the tweets and updates from the County have been.

Part of how terrible the County's social media presence boils down to a sincere lack of understanding of social media. For example:

As Jason Baker put it...

Things aren't any better on Facebook, either. Take a look:

We probably shouldn't be that surprised about this, though. Just take a look at @OCNCGov's first tweet:

Nowhere in this tweet is any expressed interest in engaging with citizens or embracing two-way communication with Orange County residents -- which is, of course, the entire point of social media.

We've had discussions on OP before about social media and public engagement and the need for government to do more. (Ruby's suggestion for a Public Engagement Advisory Board is an example of these discussions, as is James Barrett's post about the Wake County Schools' Twitter account.)

The point I want to make here is that it's not enough for local governments (or any governments, really) to simply have accounts and post press releases. What value do these tweets and posts add to government? How do these posts advance citizen engagement? How do they improve the lives of citizens and make government better?

Quite simply, they don't. Effective use of technology by government entities requires engagement, conversation, and content that is tailored to each medium, which is the precise opposite of what we've seen from the County in their social media "strategy."

With the retirement of County Manager Frank Clifton, I think Jason is right to say we need a manager who understands and prioritizes communications. It's quite clear the County currently isn't doing that.

Oh, and here are some other examples of what not to do from Orange County social media, just to underscore this post:

1. What is this? I have no idea.

2. Sure would like to sign up for this online. How do I do that?

3. I know how to call 911. What I don't know is if our county 911 services have come into the 21st century yet.

4. If I needed to know this, I could look it up online. Why should I, in scrolling through my newsfeed, care? If it's not immediately relevant, don't post it.



I completely agree with your critique, Travis. Although I don't want to scare them away from at least dipping their toes in the wild water of the Internet!Unfortunately the problem isn't just a few clueless (though well-intented) staff at one or two local governments. I haven't seen many of our elected leaders even articulate a priority to staff of listening to and responding to residents outside of formal hearings. Carrboro seems to get it sometimes, but Chapel Hill could do much better, and the county and school systems are sometimes embarrassing.As long as meaningful engagement and government transparency are not even stated as goals, we can't expect the town and county governments or school administrations to develop effective strategies to do any kind of communication that goes beyond PR. (And frankly, our county government can't even do that well.) By the way I just discovered that our county schools are on Twiter now too in case you hadn't seen that. should start a new list! 

The Twitter feed for Wake County Schools manages to achieve something special: engagement with students. See

In case you're wondering, I searched around Twitter and found 32 NC counties with Twitter accounts. I've made a Twitter list of them here in the event anyone is interested in comparing and seeing what other counties across the state are doing.

Based on my quick look at most of these accounts, none seem to have great interaction with followers and users, but a few stand out as being more useful for users. Our two largest counties, as you might expect, have decent Twitter accounts: @MeckCounty & @WakeGOV. Smaller counties that also have decent Twitter accounts: @DurhamCounty, @CabarrusCounty, & @UnionCountyNC.

There are many examples of different organizations, including for-profit, non-profit and public, that do a terrific job using social media to inform their customers and interact with them. One local example that most of us already know about is the folks at @gotriangle. Even the local Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools feed has started to become a bit more conversational and less just a parroting of press releases, although there is still no public interaction. So while it's disappointing that Orange County is so far behind, with the right leadership and the right personnel in strategic communications positions it can catch up quickly.

I want to echo what Geoff said about the @gotriangle communications staff. They are by far the most engaging, humorous, and helpful government agency I have ever interacted with on social media, and perhaps in general. Every issue I have ever reported to them through Twitter has been responded to, and almost always in a way that brought a smile to my face. They manage to self-promote without being obnoxious, provide helpful information, and most importantly, respond to people with meaningful answers in a timely manner. I wish all local governments would emulate them.Meanwhile, two hours into the Great Chapel Hill Flood of 2013, as I sat here relying solely on my cell phone for information until the power came back on a few minutes ago, I didn't learn anything useful from our local government Twitter feeds. That is, unless you count some tireless elected officials and individual public servants, especially Mayor Kleinschmidt and Chief Blue, and a few others, who took it upon themselves to provide frequent and useful updates from their personal accounts. In fairness, @OCNCGOV did publish three press releases a few minutes ago, and as of this moment has linked to two of them from their Twitter feed... It's clear that we've got a lot of hard working people in local government who are striving tirelessly to keep us safe during times of emergency. Let's give them a communications infrastructure worthy of their hard work!

I sat in budget meetings for both the CHCCS school system and OC where staff was asking for additional staff to work on communications.  And the elected boards in both cases provided discouragement from adding those positions in these extremely tight budget times.  Direct service always seems to win over communication staff.   I'm not saying that's the right answer, but it is reality.  And I don't think you can increase communications solely with existing staff.  Look at what @WCPSS is doing, for example.  CHCCS doesn't have the staff to provide that level of interaction.  Our communications "team" is 2 people who handle everything from publications like student handbooks to responding to all public records requests. And every time "administration" is considered for additional staff, the answer always is protect the classroom first. Given reduced funding overall, how do you make investment in this area over direct services?  

Budgets are a fair point to bring up as a constraint, I agree with you there. However, what I do think can be done without stretching budgets is making sure that existing communications staff, who are already charged with maintaining social media, understand how to use the platforms and are appropriately tailoring content to each medium. This step alone would be a big improvement for a number of government entities who seem to not "get it," so to speak.I might have a different perspective being someone who's part of a generation often referred to as "digitial natives," but for me, social media is just an integral part of every day communication, so to me it doesn't seem like an excess burden to expect a communications staff person to know how to use these tools, even if they may lack the time to maintain appropriate interaction and engagement (though, it seems rather intuitive and easy to be able to check interactions and know when a reply is warranted and when it isn't).

Does anyone have any experience with the Civic Commons? (the Cleveland Ohio Broadband program) is using this as a venue for discussing the digital divide this month. 


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