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Governments often have trouble with the 'social' part of social media

Aaron Selbig

Local governments are turning to social media to reach citizens where they are. 

The Grand Traverse County 911 dispatch center has probably the most-"liked" Facebook page in northern Michigan. Deputy Director Jason Torrey says the idea for the page came in the spring of 2012, when a huge snowstorm caused chaos all over the county.

“It dumped two and a half feet of snow – wet, heavy snow," says Torrey. "It took power out in the whole county.”

Torrey says communication was almost completely shut down during the snowstorm, except for smartphones.

“And they were communicating on their Facebook pages to each other, asking each other what’s going on," he says. "We didn’t have a Facebook page but I could see this happening and our staff could see it happening. So we were like, ‘what are we doing?’”

'You have to be personable'

Three years later, the Grand Traverse 911 Facebook page is what they call in internet parlance “viral.” It has more than 31,000 “likes” – that’s about 10,000 more than Governor Rick Snyder’s Facebook page – and things that get posted there are often shared thousands of times, all over the world.

That’s the kind of Facebook activity businesses would drool over. So how does a small government entity get that kind of exposure?

“You have to be personable," says Torrey. "That’s probably our biggest attribute. We just want to say it how you want to hear it. We don’t want to be robotic. We want to be interactive because that’s what Facebook is – it’s an interactive social media forum.”

The Grand Traverse 911 page is run by five supervisors in central dispatch, all of whom, says Torrey, have a good sense of humor.

Here’s a popular post from a couple of weeks ago: “We have received a report of four pigs running … in the Kingsley area. The owner has been advised and should be bringing the piggies all the way home shortly.”

Starting from scratch

Traverse City Clerk Benjamin Marentette says he's a big fan of the Grand Traverse 911 Facebook page.

“I’m jealous, I’m envious and I don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to surpass that," says Marentette. "But good for them. They’re having fun with it.”

Traverse City just launched its own Facebook page in January and, while it has a ways to go to catch up to Grand Traverse 911, it already has nearly 5,000 likes. Traverse City’s approach is a little different. There are posts that seem to resonate with people and get shared a lot, like a recent photo of city firemen in the middle of a training exercise.

The City of Charlevoix’s Facebook page is up to about 2,600 likes. A post there about summertime job openings is getting a lot of shares this week.

On the City ofManisteepage, photos of sunset at the harbor are popular.

A lot of Traverse City’s Facebook posts are more about the nitty gritty of city business, like letting people know what’s coming up at the next city commission meeting.

“Certainly not everything we do is super fun and sexy and exciting," says Marentette. "But we try to create some appeal so it encourages dialogue and engagement.”

Rules for managers and rules for users

Marentette says Traverse City’s Facebook page is curated by a handful of people in the clerk’s office. And they have a posting policy – passed by the city commission – to guide them. There’s also a set of rules for the public posted on the page itself. Things like no profanity and no personal attacks.

If it’s necessary, Marentette says the clerk’s office is prepared to delete offending Facebook comments or even ban users. But so far, the issue hasn’t come up.

“I imagine it will," says Marentette. "Eventually, we’ll get there, probably. Just because that’s just the nature of online interaction. But no … it’s not come up.

Erin Monigold owns a social media company based in Traverse City. She helped the city design its new Facebook page. Monigold says she’s in business because a lot of large organizations struggle with Facebook and other social media. They know they should be on it but they don’t quite know how to engage. Some of her clients even hire her to do their Facebook posting for them.

Monigold says if there’s a secret to Facebook success, it’s to be human.

“Be yourself," she says. "Have some personality, whether it’s using humor or just being warm and approachable, I think is the best way to say it.”

Monigold says cities and governments also keep up with the technology. While Facebook and Twitter are the big social media players now, more people – especially younger people – are migrating to image-based networks, like Instagram.