Social Media, Now a Key Municipal Communications Tool

I had previously mentioned how the City of Clarence-Rockland is a relative newcomer in terms of using social media as a communication tool. Only after the election of a new and younger municipal council and the presentation of a strong social media policy in 2015 were we able to build our municipal Facebook page. How far we have come in just five years!

At the beginning, we used a centralized social media approach, as we needed time to build the City’s brand as well as our community.  We used our Facebook page as an extension of our traditional communication tools. I would write a press release, send it to the media, and publish it on our website and on our Facebook page. It worked well for a year or two, giving us time to learn about the platform and how it could work for us.

Over time, like approximately half of Ontario municipalities, we switched to a mixed approach. We still have our main Facebook page where we give information about road closures, new services and overall municipal information. As residents love commenting about fires and accidents, we have a Fire Department Facebook page where the administrators give information about active incidents and do health and safety promotion.  Our public library also has its Facebook page to promote their fun activities and programs. The administrators of that page did an amazing job at transforming the way residents view the library. Since we share each others posts, we are able to reach more residents than just our page’s followers.

Source : Redbrick Communications 2017 Social Media Survey

We recently added a sister page to our main Facebook page. In December, we opened the Alain Potvin Park, featuring a skating path and a sledding hill. This new page’s purpose is to inform residents about the conditions of the park before they venture out. We introduced our little penguins and we update the page as the conditions change.  

Source : Clarence-Rockland Alain Potvin Park Facebook Page

Being the administrator of two social media pages does present its challenges. Residents will private message our pages during the weekends (sometimes during the night) and until recently, being sick or going on vacation and not monitoring our pages was not an option.

I am fortunate that the City of Clarence-Rockland now considers social media a vital, if not primary, communications tool. We now have a backup administrator and we are slowly considering giving editing rights to other staff members.

Do you follow a municipal social media page? If yes, what type of information do you expect to see?

Twitter : Learn how @clarencerocklan uses social media in its daily communications #municipalcommunications

Facebook : The City of Clarence-Rockland administers four different Facebook pages. How well does it work?

How Social Media Is Transforming Journalism

I started my career as a journalist in a rural weekly newspaper. For six years, I attended municipal council meetings, local theatre productions and covered the work of our regional politicians. I would sometimes work 60 hours a week, writing approximately 10 to 15 articles a week to fill 28 pages in a newspaper that sometimes had 2 people on staff. Most of the time, it was only me. The work was hard but every week, when all the local newspapers were published, I would compare my work to what the other journalists did. Who had the best quote, the best photo, the best story angle.

I eventually left that business and became Communications Officer for the City of Clarence-Rockland. In my work, I now have to work with the new generation of journalists. At the beginning, I thought they were lazy for not taking any notes and relying on their phones to record interviews. They also did their research online while “in my time” the phone book was my best friend.

 With time, I started to notice that journalists would promote their stories on social media and interact with people. People did not recognize journalists by their photos and byline anymore, they could now have conversations with them in real time. In his article Three Major Ways Social Media is Changing Journalism, Kurt Wagner ’12, Senior Editor, Social Media, Recode, mentions that it is getting more “personal” with journalists now being able to promote themselves and their work.

During a conversation, a reporter friend of mine once explained that his salary was partly based on social media clicks and website clicks. Since he worked for a tabloid-style newspaper, he was always looking for more stories, titles and photos that were shocking. To be frank, he did not really like that newspaper nor the type of stories he had to write and promote on social media.

Another way I noticed that social media is changing journalism is the speed with which stories are being published. People do not have to wait for the newspaper or news bulletin to get their news; they can consume it on Facebook or Twitter as soon as it is published. Unfortunately, the fact that everybody now has a smart phone makes it easier for individuals to photograph and publish events without putting them in context first. It seems that nobody wants to be right anymore, everybody wants to be first.

This lack of rigour combined with how effortless it is to publish content on social media made it easier for fake news to worm its way into our lives. Sometimes fake news is obviously satirical and is meant to entertain.  On the other hand, other times individuals publish fake news to fulfill an agenda and, more dangerously, create panic. To help people develop their critical thinking, Library and Archives Canada recently published a nice visual on how to identify fake news.  

Source : Library and Archives Canada

I do not think that journalists are lazy anymore. Once their news item is filed, their work continues on social media. Let me know how else, good or bad, you think social media is changing journalism.

Twitter : Journalism: a changing profession thanks to social media. #journalism #news #fakenews

Facebook : A former reporter reflects on how social media is changing journalism.

Don’t fall in those 3 emergency communications social media traps

In my first blog Four Easy Ways to Use Social Media in Emergency Communications, I explained how I ran a successful communication’s campaign in a difficult situation. It is easy to tell people what to do in order to get positive outcomes. What about what not to do? Here are three social media traps to avoid in communicating during an emergency, based on my own experience.

Resist the Urge to Answer Angry Messages

I am not talking here about trolls who just want to cause trouble. During an emergency, it is normal that some people will panic and think the government is not doing enough to help. Other people will volunteer their time and work tirelessly. We saw that some of those volunteers were so invested that they seemed to be on a mission. With everybody not sleeping and exhaustion starting to creep on people, it is easy to lose objectivity and tempers are quick to flare up. This message was posted on the City’s Facebook page after I had publicized a list of available resources for flood victims. I was used to see negative messages on community pages or on private citizens’ page but it was the first time someone directly wrote on the City’s page. This was the perfect time for me to get away from the keyboard and go take a walk. Answering that message would not have accomplished anything, would have angered that volunteer even more and would have distracted from my work.

Source : City of Clarence-Rockland

Do Not Go Outside of Your Social Media Purpose

As we started communicating the city’s flood efforts news and updates, two other flood-related Facebook pages were created. One was administered by the residents of a particular flooded street, giving updates on their needs and another was made by volunteers, coordinating requests for supplies by homeowners and offers for food by the community. All three pages had very different purposes. At one point during the events, the administrators of those Facebook pages requested that we share their updates. Doing so would have confused the residents as to the purpose of the municipal information page. Another important point was that I did not personally know the individuals administering those pages and I could not validate the accuracy of the postings. It is best to stick to your mandate at all times.

Do Not Neglect to Scan for False News

False news is a term that I detest as it is usually attributed to the work of mainstream journalists. More damaging in a state of emergency are the rumours that start on social media by individuals and cause panic. Sometimes it is done with malicious intent and other times it is just a clueless resident stating an opinion as fact.  In 2017, residents were discussing on Facebook the quality of the river water when one mentioned that he will need to get a vaccine against typhoid fever. This, of course, started a social media panic. Nobody in the Emergency Operating Centre had even talked of typhoid fever. The resident had confused typhoid fever with tetanus. Since Clarence-Rockland was monitoring for those types of rumours, I was able to go to an official source and publish a rectification in a matter of minutes.

Source City of Clarence-Rockland

It is already February and so far, in Ottawa, there is not a lot of snow. I hope that it means we will avoid another devastating flood this year.  Faced with those types of scenarios, is there anything you would have done differently?

Me after a very long day

Twitter : Learn how @ClarenceRocklan avoided 3 social media traps during the 2017 and 2019 floods. #flood2017 #flood2019 #emergencymanagement

Facebook : Social media is a great tool during an emergency but comes with dos and don’ts to communicate effectively. The City of Clarence-Rockland learned about the social media don’ts during an emergency.

Four Easy Ways to Use Social Media in Emergency Communications

The use of social media as a corporate tool is a new concept for municipalities. In its 2012 Annual Social Media Survey, Redbrick Communications found that 44% of Ontario municipalities were using social media, with 84% of those being on Facebook. In 2019, Redbrick polled 31 municipalities and reported that 97% were using Facebook with 26 of those municipalities having an average of four pages. Smaller municipalities were late in jumping on the social media bandwagon, usually because of a lack of personnel and understanding of how social medial works.

In Eastern Ontario, most municipal elected officials and employees will mention the Ice Storm of 1998 when asked about an example of emergency management. That was way before social media became a communication tool. As a municipal communicator, I looked up with envy to those cities that had the resources to include social media in their communications strategies. One of those initiatives I followed was Calgary’s Mayor Naheed Nenshi during the 2013 floods. His regular tweets informed residents as well as the media and stimulated civic engagement. He became a social media star and a popular hero.

At that time, I was far from knowing that five years later, I would be the one using social media to inform journalists and reassure residents as Emergency Information Officer during the 2017 and 2019 floods in Clarence-Rockland. When the water started rising in April 2017, our Facebook page had approximately 1000 followers. Three weeks later, we had doubled our followers with some postings reaching up to 5,000 followers. A success for a small rural municipality in Eastern Ontario. When the floods hit us again in 2019, we communicated with the population and the media the same way as it had worked great the first time.

Post Often and as Soon as You Have Updates

Sounds simplistic I know. Residents had started to comment our flood reaction days before the municipality declared a State of Emergency and I needed to give the proper information and to take back control of the narrative. I published the first messages on Facebook and Twitter early in the morning and would continue nonstop often until past 9:00 pm. Posts ranged from emergency meeting updates, to OPP, Fire Department, Paramedics, Red Cross and Health Unit announcements. Media looked forward to those announcements and as they shared them, they helped us reach more residents.

Show What You Are Doing

The first images of the 2017 and 2019 floods were, obviously, of the rising water and the residents and volunteers building sandbag walls. Since the Emergency Operating Centre was located 15 kilometres outside of the flood zone, residents did not see the beehive of activity this place truly was. As such, residents would often declare that the City was not doing enough to help residents. When other municipalities called in the Canadian Armed Forces for help, people on Facebook criticized us for not doing the same, without knowing we were actually waiting to see if the army could come and help us. When three soldiers arrived for a preliminary meeting, I posted this picture of the briefing. This photo gave a glimpse of inside the Emergency Operations Centre and showed the employees at work. Most important, it showed that help had arrived. This photo reached 17,285 Facebook users and local media published it as well.

Credit : Julie Chartrand – City of Clarence-Rockland

Engage Citizens by Making Them Part of the Relief Effort

During an emergency, it is normal human behaviour to want to help. Not everybody could physically fill sandbags and build sandbag walls. We would receive many calls offering donations of clothes and appliances. While very generous, the timing of these offers was poor as the residents were still fighting to save their houses and had not evacuated. When I would receive an offer for help, I would make them part of my social media emergency communications team.  One contact did my media monitoring and sent me twice-daily reports. Another scanned community Facebook pages and contacted me with the questions the residents were asking on those pages. I was then able to address the residents’ concerns very quickly. To the rest, I told them to like my page and share all of my posts to reach as many people as possible. This strategy worked so well that as soon as I would write an update, it would be shared dozens of times in a matter of minutes.

Live Stream Your Press Conferences

At the beginning of every natural disaster is the usual press conference, usually attended by traditional media and some residents. Municipal staff, first responders and government agency take their turn and give updates on the situation.    Usually missing from those press conferences are the victims of the natural disasters. In Clarence-Rockland’s case, they were too busy trying to save their homes. I accepted the offer of a local high school where in exchange for volunteer hours students would broadcast the press conference live on Facebook. We also promoted this initiative to the population as well as tell the flood victims before the meeting. The video was viewed by 8,800 Facebook users and reached more than 40,000 user. For a small rural municipality of 25,000 residents, I would say that’s not too bad.

I am always looking to improve my emergency communications skills. If you know of other events where the social media communications was a success, please share them with me.

Credit : Julie Chartrand – City of Clarence-Rockland

Twitter : @clarencerocklan had 2 floods in 3 years. Read how social media played a key role in the emergency comms effort  #flood2017 #flood2019 #emergencymanagement

Facebook : The City of Clarence-Rockland had two floods in three years. Facebook was a valuable tool in their emergency communications. Read how it was done.