Atlantic Cities

The Social Media Avalanche and the Mayoral Communications Office

The Social Media Avalanche and the Mayoral Communications Office
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Oakland, Calif., Mayor Jean Quan had been getting an earful. And an email inboxful. And a Facebook wallful. Her leadership in the handling of the city’s Occupy protesters had gathered international attention, as the encampment was torn down and clashes between protesters and police had left many injured – including the much publicized skull fracture of an Iraq War veteran.

The mostly negative attention being directed at the city and its chief executive came through in the form of phone calls and emails, but also thousands of Twitter and Facebook comments. Those concerns – many voiced from beyond the city’s borders – were often angry, derogatory and inflammatory, according to Sue Piper, the mayor’s communications manager. One notable email sent to the mayor and redirected to Piper’s inbox, summing up the public’s general tenor of emotion, bore a one-word subject line: “Murderer!”

“I don’t know where the civility has gone,” says Piper, who says the flood of comments turned from critical to offensive. “People were taking advantage of the anonymity of the Internet to post all kinds of racist, sexist and just nasty things that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face.”

And so, on December 15, the mayor’s Twitter account announced that her Facebook fan page would be disabled. The influx of negativity certainly had a role in urging this action, but Piper says the real issue is the sheer volume of communication. It’s a relatively new problem for city mayors to face, but one they’re increasingly aware of: with many more ways for mayors and cities to communicate with the public, there are many more options for them to publicly and vocally communicate back – with both positive and negative comments.

In Newark, N.J., mayoral staffers are also trying to cope with an increasingly vocal public. With a staff of five able to focus on communications, the city can dedicate more time to monitoring and responding to the public, be it over the phone or online. Getting back to people – no matter what their question or concern – is the strategy, according to Anne Torres, director of communications in Mayor Cory Booker’s office.

“The key is just honesty,” Torres says. “It’s responding to the negatives as well as the positives.”

The City of Newark’s Twitter account has about 5,000 followers, and Torres says the comments and questions from people are split about 50/50 between complaints and praise. What’s becoming more common, she says, is people tweeting pictures of graffiti or vacant properties in hopes of getting the city to take action. “That to us is extremely useful. You can’t pay for that,” Torres says.

But while some of these issues can be solved relatively quickly – a tree down or a street that hasn’t had its snow plowed – others, like a derelict house breeding crime, can’t be handled right away. The instant gratification of online communication doesn’t really line up with these sorts of longer-term problems. But Torres says that hearing about them through Twitter – and responding – can be very helpful in eventually getting something done.

“Even if there’s not an immediate action to abate a problem, at least we can just be honest and give people a timeline of when they can expect something to happen,” Torres says. “That’s the best course.”

Much of the team’s communications are handled by the mayor himself. With more than 1.1 million following his personal Twitter account, Booker famously (and frequently) posts to Twitter about his interactions with the public. A classic example, from December 20: “At a ribbon cutting for a company in the South Ward (Bartlett Dairy) bringing 100s of jobs to Newark. So awesome!”

A similar note was posted to the mayor’s Facebook page, which has an audience of 55,000. More than 100 people “Liked” the missive, which collected 22 comments. This is a pretty typical return.

But it’s not all high-fives and smiles. Torres says some of the comments on Facebook and Twitter can get out of hand at times, including some profane language. “We just don’t respond. Obviously,” Torres says.

“Is it overbearing? Is it tough sometimes? Yeah, especially if it’s a hectic day. But we make it work,” Torres says.

She argues that within a few years, her city and probably many others will have staff members solely dedicated to monitoring and communicating through social media.

Another city with an actively Twittering mayor is Portland, Ore. Mayor Sam Adams joined Twitter about a week after taking office in January 2009 and ever since, his account has been a popular way for locals to contact the mayor, and for him to respond. Which he does. Almost religiously.

Adams handles his own account, according to communications director Amy Ruiz. But he also uses it as a sort of switchboard, forwarding specific requests and complaints on to the appropriate department or member of his staff.

“Certainly he can’t respond to everyone who tweets to him, but he’s got 23 staffers who can,” says Ruiz.

Amid Twitter criticism of his closure of the city’s Occupy encampment in November, Adams addressed critics and complaints directly. As the Oregonian reported, Adams was getting heat from around the country for the closure, including this note from Michael Tracey, a non-Portland resident on the East Coast: "Excuse offered by @MayorSamAdams for authorizing police violence is essentially ‘Come on you guys! I'm a liberal’!"

To this and other criticisms from people sympathetic to the Occupy movement, Adams wrote: "In response to all this, has our response been perfect? It never is. And neither is yours. But together Portland has done better than most."

Despite the particularly emotional responses inspired by the Occupy movement, Ruiz says most of Adams’ Twitter interactions are pretty civil.

“Inflammatory comments are rare,” Ruiz says. “And even when they do happen, frankly, the mayor puts up with it for a long time.”

Adams’s personal touch and switchboard approach seems to be working in Portland, but when the volume of communications increases, being personal or even punctual gets a lot harder.

In New York, the city’s 311 information hotline receives 30,000 to 60,000 calls a day, according to Stu Loeser, press secretary for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. By analyzing these calls, Loeser and the mayor’s staff of about 50 are able to identify the biggest issues and focus on addressing them. A huge screen in city hall keeps real-time information on the calls coming in, and ranks the top complaints. Bloomberg also receives some of these sorts of complaints and service requests on his Twitter account (201,000 followers) and an official Mayor’s Office account (58,000 followers). Loeser says that legitimate requests or complaints through these media are given the same attention.

“If it’s a different version of everyone calling 311 or the mayor’s press office to voice displeasure on a piece of legislation, it’s treated in the same way,” Loeser says.

In addition to communicating through Twitter, the mayor’s office also posts notes and announcements to Bloomberg’s Facebook page and its audience of about 38,000. Most of the postings are fairly banal announcements, but this post from November 15, the day the city cleared out the Occupy encampment at Zuccotti Park, got a lot of not-so-positive attention. To date, 478 comments are posted on this page, the majority of them critical, and many of them sharply worded. One example: “EVICT BLOOMBERG FROM OFFICE BREAKER OF 1st AMENDMENT NAZI COW HE IS.”

Loeser says these and other complaints are part of the process, and the city has to do as much as it can to address concerns when it can. He says this flood of information – both insulting and congratulatory – is important to process and understand.

“A lot of people say that as Twitter and forms of social media become more popular, it’s like drinking out of a fire hose. There’s just so much information. To the degree that you can have metrics that show you how big the flow is out of the fire hose, then it tells you something’s going on,” Loeser says.

But being able to tap into that flow of information takes effort and resources many cities just don’t have. For Piper in Oakland, the growing tide of communication methods is simply too much for her one-person mayoral communications team to handle. With more than 40 years in marketing and communications, she deals with all media relations, including updates to the mayor’s two websites, her personal Facebook page, a weekly email to about 12,000 subscribers, writing press releases, organizing media briefings and managing public events. As the Occupy protests heated up in late October, Piper says the tide of communication reached “tsunami proportions.” Staying up-to-date on every wall post and tweet – and responding or deleting particularly offensive comments – was becoming unrealistic for one person. The easy option was to simply close the Facebook fan page that had been the main target of much of the negative commenting. Piper says that unless the city’s economy turns around drastically, she’ll be the only one handling mayoral communications, and as a result, only so much communication will be able to occur.

“I just don’t have the time to monitor all this stuff,” Piper says.

As the economic situation keeps city government budgets tight, many cities probably won't be able to bring in more people to focus on answering Twitter questions or addressing criticism on Facebook pages any time soon. But in an age when it’s so easy to spout off a bit of praise or criticism or civic concern through social media, it’s likely that the public will not only continue to voice its concerns, but also to demand that someone is there to listen and hopefully respond.

Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for The Atlantic Cities. He lives in Los Angeles. All posts »

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