Santa Rosa's public employees are increasingly using social media to promote the city's programs and services, highlight upcoming events and solicit feedback from the public.
As residents turn to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for information, the city has followed them into this new interactive world.
But the effort has raised questions about how city employees should best engage online audiences, including what employees should put up on social media sites and what public comments they should take down.
"We know that we're dipping our toes into some pretty swampy waters," said Jake Bayless, web administrator for the city. "We've been having to make up the rules as we go."
Last week, the city took a step toward changing that with the City Council's adoption of a new social media policy. The goal is to establish new guidelines for how various city departments should run their social media sites.
There are more such sites than most might expect.
City staffers now utilize 10 different Facebook pages, 12 Twitter accounts, and six YouTube channels. Various city departments use the sites, which are separate from city's official website, to spread the word about everything from upcoming road work projects to profiles of downtown businesses and explanations about the city's wastewater treatment process.
That might seem like a lot of activity, but Santa Rosa is "just barely scratching the surface" of finding ways to effectively use social media, said Kerry Rego, a consultant who has helped the city with its social media policies.
Compared to the private sector, government agencies have been slower to adopt social media, often taking a more cautious approach that involves "more rigid parameters of use," Rego said.
But that hesitation is giving way to an embrace of social media that is rapidly altering the way government officials and programs interact with citizens.
"All government, all the way down to the smallest municipality, has recognized that it's not going away," Rego said of social media. "They're not all comfortable with it, but at this point it's no longer an option."
Handling public comments is one of the biggest issues that arises when government agencies venture beyond official websites, which Santa Rosa uses strictly as a source of information for the public, and into social media sites, which encourage feedback from the public.
Santa Rosa's new policy gives city employees wide latitude to remove comments on its social media sites.
"The City of Santa Rosa reserves the right to modify or remove any messages or postings that it deems, in its sole discretion, to be abusive, obscene, defamatory, in violation of the copyright, trademark right, or other intellectual property right of any third party, in violation of the 'Terms of Service Agreement' or otherwise inappropriate," the policy reads.
"It's a middle ground between censorship and complete freedom of speech," Rego said.
Rego, who also works with Sonoma County employees on their social media efforts, counsels public employees to resist the urge to delete or remove comments just because they are negative or critical, and instead focus on responding positively to the comments.
"Learning how to deal with negativity is a big part of it," Rego said. "You can't just run in there and delete something because you don't like it."
The issue is complicated by the fact that public comments made on a city social media site need to be handled just as any other comments to the city. They are subject to the state's Public Records Act and, whether they are removed from the site or not, must be retained by the city for a specified period of time.
Georgia Pedgrift, the city's community engagement coordinator, said she has occasionally spotted remarks on her site that she didn't appreciate, but has never bothered to remove them.
"When someone has said something I thought was kind of rude, I just had to say, 'You know what, that's part of what free speech is about,'" Pedgrift said.
Capt. Craig Schwartz said it is rare that offensive remarks need to be removed from the police department's Facebook site, but he has done it. Someone once wrote a comment in Russian on the page that, when translated, turned out to be profane, expressing a "general dislike of law enforcement," Schwartz said.
He removed the post. Most comments, however, have expressed appreciation for the department's willingness to engage directly with residents, he said.
"The response has been overwhelmingly positive," Schwartz said.
Posts by the department include a variety of law enforcement related subjects, such as how to turn in unwanted firearms and alerts about "warm-up thefts," reminding people that car thieves sometimes target those who leave their cars running on cold mornings, Schwartz said.
There have been examples, however, of law enforcement agencies using social media in questionable ways. A captain with the New York City Police Department used Twitter last year to alert Brooklyn residents when parolees were released into their neighborhood. That account was later shut down.
The goal of Santa Rosa's new policy is to prevent such missteps, Bayless said.
The policy prohibits employees from disclosing confidential information. It also requires information posted by employees "will be professional and reflect positively on the City of Santa Rosa, staff, volunteers and services."
That can be a matter of opinion. Pedgrift, the community engagement coordinator, recently produced a video aimed at promoting a city program called "Coffee with a Department Head." The program involves a city department head making themselves available to the public once a month to answer questions at a local coffee shop.
The video is meant to be a humorous spoof of a scary movie trailer. It features Mayor Ernesto Olivares struggling to cut a piece of paper with a pair of oversize scissors; Rick Moshier, director of public works and transportation, playing with puppets; and Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm introducing a fluffy white lap-dog as the department's newest canine officer.
Rego admits the video "comes off as a little bit cheesy," but gives the city credit for trying new things and adapting its message to the medium.
"It was actually very funny," she said. "It really worked. It caught my attention."
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SEPTEMBER 2, 2014
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