City Managers: Make Social Media Work For You

If you work in local government and are ready to get your social media strategy on the right track, start here.

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We recently had the opportunity to speak with Sam Anselm from Joplin, Missouri, Lee Feldman from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Betsy Fretwell from Las Vegas, Nevada, and Grant Kleinhenz from Brownsburg, Indiana. If you are involved in local government and are looking for a few ideas for your social media strategy, read their words of advice. You’re sure to learn something important!

How do you get your citizens to follow you?

Sam Anselm: I don’t think there’s too many citizens that follow me on Twitter, but there are a few. I don’t have a strategy for that; I do use a few hashtags that might be seen by Joplin citizens. I think the majority of my followers come from interacting with ELGL (Emerging Local Government Leaders) on Twitter. Right now I’m working with our public information officer to find out how we can use Facebook and our website to draw other Joplin citizens to Twitter.

Lee Feldman: I gain followers in two ways—the first of which is through the emails I send out. I have a link in the emails that will take you to my Twitter page so you can follow me. I’ve picked up some folks with that. The other method I’ve seen success with is when the city of Fort Lauderdale or the local fire department send out a tweet, they’ll sometimes include my Twitter handle.

Betsy Fretwell: Our city does a great job leading their Twitter account, so it's easy for me to ride on their coattails a bit. I try to be as active as possible and align with the city’s posts. We try to get all employees involved in social media with the city’s stories. In fact, the Las Vegas city Twitter account has more followers than local media outlets! You have to go where people are talking, and those places are now Twitter and Facebook.

Grand Kleinhenz: I believe that the time of day you tweet is very important—for example, I know it’s important to tweet in the evenings when everyone is off of work. I use Hootsuite to tweet after hours. One way to gain followers is to follow their account, or strategically mention them. I’ve found that leads to “follow back,” which typically leads to better reach.

What type of information do you post?

Sam Anselm: I try to post a nice balance of what’s going on with work and my personal life. All too often, people see government as a ubiquitous blob of systems and processes; they don’t actually think about the fact that there are people behind those processes. It’s important to add a personal spin to your social media content to remind folks that you’re human.

Lee Feldman: I try to post a lot of interesting things about the city, and post about any special events. If I’m at a conference somewhere and someone says something that I want to memorialize, I make sure to tweet it. For example, I was recently in Phoenix for the Transforming Local Government conference. During the key notes, I was tweeting away anything I thought was relevant. Back at home, I recently sent out a few tweets about a new playground build, and I encouraged people from the community to come build with us. Just today I tweeted an article that said Fort Lauderdale was most diverse community in Florida, which was noteworthy. Of course, I also tweet if there’s a major road closure that people need to know about, or anything along those lines.

Betsy Fretwell: If I’m at an event, I’ll be sure to snap a photo and post about it. I’ll post about any great new initiatives, like a new park, or if a local baseball team is doing well. I also am active in Twitter chats. For example, there was recently a very contentious issue regarding if the city should fund a new major league soccer stadium. We decided to create a hashtag and spread the word, and we received a lot of direct feedback from citizens that way. We also focus on connecting with downtown (Las Vegas) stakeholders. They frequently use social media—both Facebook and Twitter—to get in contact with me directly when I’m not in the office. For example, if there is a parade scheduled on a Saturday morning and it’s getting in the way of their business, they’ll message me directly and ask what I can do about it.

Grant Kleinhenz: I’ve always felt that a picture is worth a thousand words. From the 9,300 tweets I’ve posted, over 2,000 of those are images. I’ve found that people are more interested in a picture or a graph; it’s a lot more interesting to see a bar graph about job creation, for example, than to read about it. I also can’t say enough in 140 characters, so pictures are very helpful. The driving ideas behind our town social media accounts are to 1) inform, 2) engage, and 3) influence. You can turn residents into advocates by providing them with correct information. If you don’t post about something, it will be gathered from another source or gossiped about. We want our residents to know what’s going on.

How do you respond to tweets directed at you, positive or negative?

Sam Anselm: That really depends on nature of the conversation. I’m usually talking with other local government employees who kind of “get it”. As far as responding to negativity, I’ve found that isn’t as rampant on Twitter as it is on Facebook. Maybe it’s because of character limits.

Lee Feldman: I generally don’t get messages directed at me. I get a couple people sending me messages, but they are usually people I know. There was one issue where we were getting beat up in the social media world this past November, and I did see some negative responses during that. All of it was brought on due to ordinances we had adopted over feeding the homeless in public places. The story caught a lot of national attention, but people from around the country were only hearing one side of the story and then tweeting out their thoughts. I used my Twitter account to get our side of the story back out there. There were people who didn’t like that, so they responded very negatively or with vulgarity. At that point I would had to step back and ignore it; you can’t engage conversation when you’re dealing with things like that.

Betsy Fretwell: We have a social media team that monitors what’s going on. They’ll pass those things along to me, or handle it themselves, depending on the nature of it.

Grant Kleinhenz: I’d say if you aren’t prepared to respond, then you shouldn’t be on social media. People want and expect a response. Be sure to respond with the correct information, whether they’re asking about a timeline, deadline, expenditure, or bid. I always verify information before I put it out. I typically respond 5-10 times a day; even today I’ve responded to half a dozen questions. I’d rather they get the answers directly from the horse's mouth than from someone who responds without the correct information. Along those lines, you have to be prepared for negativity. Always try to be respectful and hear and understand their opinions and comments before responding.

What is your your typical posting frequency like?

Sam Anselm: I don’t have a set schedule to send out five tweets a day or anything; I just do my best to keep my Twitter updated. When I see something interesting, or if I have a break during the work day, I’ll jump on Twitter and comment or retweet. I try to post or retweet whatever grabs my attention and whatever I think could be helpful.

Lee Feldman: I typically post a few times per week. I’m not tweeting constantly, but I do try to tweet things that are relevant to community as a whole.

Betsy Fretwell: It goes up and down. Sometimes I’m on a mission and tweet quite a bit in a day, and other times I’ll go a week and won’t post anything. I’m trying to find my sweet spot.

Grant Kleinhenz: Somewhere between 10-15 tweets per day. No one wants to have their Twitter feed flooded by any one person. Today I’ve tweeted 8 times, which is a light day. I keep my Facebook and Twitter page open on my second monitor at work so that if something comes to my mind, I can simply and easily send it out. That doesn’t mean I’m looking at it all day, but it does make for easier access. I also use the social media apps in the evening and on the weekend. Keeping up with social media is a commitment. It’s not something to use once a month and forget about. Followers grow with frequency, good content, time of day and when you reach them.

What is an unusual, funny, or noteworthy topic you have posted about or had a social media conversation about?

Sam Anselm: We had a funny conversation about the children’s TV show Caillou not too long ago. Aside from that, we’ve had some really interesting conversations with other local government people, including city hall selfies and what does your workplace look like––so I sent in a picture of my desk. There have also been some great conversations around the low percentage of women as city managers, which has had some meaningful responses.

Lee Feldman: One of the most fun things that I’ve had happen is when you guys included me on your list of the top eight city managers to follow on Twitter. I had a lot of fun with that, and picked up quite a few new followers.

Betsy Fretwell: We found out that one of our public meetings was going to be overrun by opponents to an ordinance. We weren’t expecting it. A guy on Facebook told me that 250 people were coming to a meeting in a tiny room…that was a wake up call. I thought, “How can I respond to that and also turn it around and let our citizens know?”

Grant Kleinhenz: About two years ago, there was a pretty significant storm involving cold temperatures and high winds around Halloween. We worked with the police department and decided to move the official trick-or-treating hours to 6-9 PM on November 1st, when the storm had subsided. My tweet about the trick-or-treat hour change was retweeted 65 times, which is amazing. One of our local reporters asked me if that had ever happened before on Twitter. I responded by saying that last year, we had proposed and approved a 3% budget cut and it was only tweeted a few times, but the trick-or-treat post had been retweeted 65 times, followed by “#confused”. My followers actually increased significantly after that, and I learned that people retweet what they want to know about or care about.

What advice would you give to other city managers or local government officials?

Sam Anselm: If you don’t have a Twitter account, get one. It’s that simple. Keep in mind that if you don’t show your personality in social media, you won’t generate much conversation. Working in government, you need a certain level of insanity in your blood; it shows that you are human. We listen to what the public is saying, and we do our best to make a difference or fix things that they’re looking for and asking for. If you do have a Twitter account, use it regularly. It’s fine to retweet, but don’t do it exclusively. You shouldn’t be afraid to show your personality through your tweets. Also, the hashtag “#localgovadvice” is extremely helpful when tweeting to colleagues.

Lee Feldman: The first thing I’d say is to not be afraid of Twitter. A lot of people are nervous about using it. If you try to keep it professional and above board, I don’t think you’ll have any issues. One thing I don’t do is tweet something like what I’m eating… I really don’t understand that. We have a tool at our fingertips that brings the world to us, but many people take pictures of what they’re eating? I haven’t quite figured out why that happens. Also, be sure to pay attention to what other people are tweeting and retweeting. That’s a great way to get the word out. I would say about half of my tweets are original and half are retweeted.

Betsy Fretwell: Twitter is worth a try. Citizens want ways to engage and this is the format they want it in. If you aren’t on Twitter, you’re missing out on great opportunities to connect. From complaints to compliments, all of it will be on there, so you might as well be there to see if for yourself. It certainly opens your eyes to things that would otherwise take you by surprise. If you're new to Twitter, a good place to start would be to take pictures of events that you’re proud of and tweet them out—it will give your followers some insight on who you are as a person. Another interesting aspect is that social media can help humanize you as a city manager. For example, I’m a cyclist and I have that in my Twitter profile. I get a lot of information from cyclists—like, "When will this particular trail open?", and things like that. This is a connection you may never have if you aren't on Twitter.

Grant Kleinhenz: I often call social media the best tool that we can’t afford not to use. Twitter and Facebook are free, making them very cost-effective! According to TweetReach, I reach about 19,500 accounts with each tweet––I can’t communicate with that many people using any other method. Once you understand that, you’ll be more comfortable communicating in this way. We are community advocates and leaders, and this is the best way to get our message out, particularly to millennials. Also, make sure you get the support of your board or city council. Sometimes they’ll feel differently than you about the use of social media—be sure they’ve bought into the idea so you don’t get in trouble. Also, you’ve got to think before you post. If your ire is raised because someone is after you on social media, think and take a breath before responding. Once a response is out there, you can delete it, but it’s still “out there.” Try to diffuse negativity with humor; people take that well.

City Managers, what’s your best social media advice?

A huge thanks to Sam, Lee, Betsy, and Grant for sharing their advice with us! If you have some wisdom to share with other city managers, direct message us on Twitter @clearpointstrat. You may end up in an updated version of this article.


City Managers: Make Social Media Work For You