Cities Use Social Media Sites to Reach Residents

Utah cities are finding new ways to connect with residents — in 140 characters or less.

As social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and blogs become more socially acceptable for government entities, several Utah cities are using the sites to spread the word. From city council meetings to a real-time feed of the mayor’s whereabouts, social media is making The Man look more human.

“It’s a really easy way to broadcast your message to a large group of people,” said Aarom Crim, West Valley City spokesman. “We can reach this whole new audience.”

Crim, president of the newly formed Utah Association for Government Communications, has been researching the use of such mediums for city agency use. The group is creating a formal policy for government use on such sites.

“We’re just kind of putting our foot in the water,” Crim said, as social media — particularly blogs and forums — bring on a realm of touchy issues. Internet predators, inappropriate comments, content regulation and racy ads are all concerns.

“So far, we’ve decided Facebook and MySpace are not for us, since they’re more about getting friends,” Crim said. “Twitter is where we’ve been moving. Really, that’s the trend across the country.”

Dozens of Utah cities use the free, micro-blogging Twitter service to send text-based messages.

The capital city, though, just started Twittering in June and uses Facebook as its medium of choice. Just look at Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker’s friends — 3,070 of them on Facebook.

Friday morning, Becker let them all know where he was going to be that afternoon: “Mayor Ralph Becker is repelling off the Grand America today at noon to show support for Special Olympics Utah!”

While most Utah cities are still on the cusp of Internet networking, using status updates as a way to advertise city events or a road closure, St. George Mayor Dan McArthur uses his Twitter account as a peek into his daily life. Sharing where he’s eating lunch (“I like to tout the local restaurants”) or outings with wife Bunny, the 61-year-old mayor said he loves tweeting “because it gives me a chance to be instantaneous and sometimes funny.”

“There are so many ways that you need to communicate with your citizenry because they vary across the ages. Some are on the radio, some the newspaper, some the phone, some the Internet,” he said. “I’m doing it so everyone has an opportunity to hear and know what’s going on in the city.”

That’s the reason Herriman signed on to Twitter and Facebook in May. Residents in the south valley city have a median age of 25, the demographic of most involved in social media.

“It seems such a perfect fit for us to use what’s fast becoming one of the most popular means of communication,” said Nicole Martin, Herriman’s public information officer.

City leaders in Sandy and South Jordan say they see the potential to use their Twitter accounts as a quick way to get the word out in an emergency. Another plus: Twitter and Facebook are free.

Lindon has three Twitter accounts — one run by the planning and development director, another by the city recorder and a third by the police chief.

Adam Cowie, Lindon’s planning and development director, was the first to start a Twitter account for the city.

When the account became popular in just a few weeks, Cowie reported the success to the City Council. The council voted to allow every department head in the city to create an account if approved by the city administrator.

“It just shows that we are trying to be a little more open and transparent,” Cowie said. “I think Utah has a good push for the government 2.0 concept of trying to get people on social networks. We have a desire to be more proactive.”

Centerville’s Lisa Bednarz, who refers to herself as the city’s information technology department, resisted Twitter at first, but once she saw that she could get information to residents, she sought approval to do so from the assistant city manager.

Since February, Bednarz has tweeted about upcoming Centerville events, City Council and Planning Commission meetings. And when a water main broke, the city’s drainage supervisor asked her to tweet it.

“I feel that it is a really good tool,” she said. “More cities are doing it.”

Contributing: Joseph M. Dougherty, Aaron Falk, Sara Lenz, Rebecca Palmer

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