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In a wired world, when people expect 24-7 access to information, South Bend residents want better communication with City departments and leaders, a recent study has found.
After taking office in January, the administration of Mayor Pete Buttigieg initiated a critical review to determine how social media including Facebook and Twitter can be better used to meet the desire for more effective communications.
“We realized we were not meeting its full potential,” said Mike Schmuhl, chief of staff to the mayor.
“Social media is so crucial when you are trying to talk to large groups of people. We want to reach all of the residents of the city,” Schmuhl said.
The administration reached out to the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, where a commercialization class led by Wendy Angst was searching for useful projects to engage student teams researching effective use of social media.
Schmuhl said the administration asked for a student team to suggest creative ways to use social media to share information about city services and to promote the city’s quality-of-life assets.
“The results were interesting,” Schmuhl said.
Julia Durgee, a second-year MBA student and a member of the team assigned to the city project, said the survey found residents are eager for more communication from the City. Residents also want easier and more effective ways to communicate with the City and its departments.
High on their list was information about city and cultural events, city policies and updates on weather and traffic issues.
Most said they would like an e-newsletter at least once a month. Many also said they use or would prefer to use web-based communications tools including e-mail to contact City departments.
Durgee said that while social media offer new opportunities for communications, Facebook and Twitter literally change the face of communications. Corporations that use these tools effectively put a personal face on their social media communications. “Users want to think they are talking to an actual person,” Durgee said. The informality of the communication uses links to websites with more detailed information.
As a candidate, Buttigieg used his Facebook page to promote public appearances and to make campaign announcements.
The City has a Facebook presence that is used mainly to announce road closings.
City departments have a variety of ways for residents to interact, but no coordinated strategy connecting all departments in a resource that meets residents’ needs and helps increases the exchange of information between residents and City government.
Putting all of these pieces together is the task being undertaken by this new administration.
“One thing I’m trying to do,” said Schmuhl, “is take Mayor Pete’s Facebook page and Twitter, and, with a broader focus on enhancing technology in the city, make sure all social media activities are coordinated so residents can receive a lot of information in an efficient way.
“We’re in the early stages of developing our social media strategy,” he said. “Information will be more balanced and more widely available. Instead of one outlet where the mayor talks about what he’s doing, and another with traffic updates, the new strategy will empower a number of people throughout the city to share what is going on so residents have a better understanding,” Schmuhl explained.
“There are ways to tie all of the feeds together, so residents are not just following traffic, they’re able to follow the zoo, the parks, Mayor Pete’s activities. They will be able to see so much more information about the city.”
Experience already has taught the administration that Twitter can be surprisingly effective in getting city residents talking.
Learning at a fire scene that South Bend firefighters had rescued a litter of kittens and returned them to their owner, the mayor Tweeted praise for a job well done. Soon the administration was receiving calls from professional media people who had learned about the deed from residents following the mayor on Twitter.
One benefit of social media is this ability to communicate directly with residents without having to go through the filter of traditional media. Instead of calling a press conference or sending a press release and then competing for whatever space is available in the next edition or the next broadcast, social media allow the administration to report directly to the community. Social media bypass traditional media.
“We are able to get information out instantly, in a very direct way,” Schmuhl said.
“We’ll never get away from traditional media, from press conferences and from press releases,” Schmuhl said. “We will continue to use traditional methods because those are, for now, the most effective. More people are watching television or reading the newspaper than following the City through social media. Right now, traditional media reaches more people day to day.”
The social media audience is limited but growing.
“This generation is using those tools,” Schmuhl said. “We have to prepare for the communications changes we see now and those that may be coming 20 or 30 years down the line.”
“When you’re able to communicate directly to the people, that is an extremely effective tool,” Schmuhl said.