The formal job description for the position has not yet been created, but Mayor Virg Bernero’s chief of staff, Randy Hannan, said the job means “managing all things digital.” That includes updating the city’s website, coordinating with various city departments to seek out announcements and information to put online, handling all Facebook and Twitter communication and exploring new digital platforms for the city to communicate. “This is our first venture into social media in a formal way,” he said.
The city has had a difficult time managing social media. Lansing has an official Twitter and Facebook page, but both have lay dormant since February. Hannan said that the task of updating social media websites has bounced among himself, department heads and other city employees with little coordination.
“It’s been such a challenge to maintain the social media channels to the level we’ve wanted,” Hannan said. “This position has been in the back of our mind for about two or three years.”
Until this year, though, the funds and resources were not available to pull that idea into reality. The budget passed last month was the first since 2005 with a surplus.
“We can turn this into a coordinated effort now,” Hannan said.
Roger Martin, partner at the communications firm Martin Waymire, said the city made the right move in creating a position dedicated to online communications.
“A city the size and importance of Lansing needs a robust social media presence,” he said. “There’s an essential role for social media in local governments.”
Martin has long advocated the inclusion of digital communication in local governments and organizations. He points to one of his clients as a prime example — the Michigan Municipal League, a nonprofit association representing Michigan’s municipalities.
Their online presence is expansive, from the photo-sharing website Flickr and regularly updated blogs and podcasts.
Martin said that the city of Lansing should take a similar approach, increasing the number of online channels it can participate in.
“If the government wants to establish a policy, lay off workers, adopt a budget, someone’s already going to be talking about it on social media anyway,” he said. “So why should the government cut itself out of that conversation?” It’s not as simple as setting up a few free online accounts, though.
“A job like this requires some very strong communication skills,” Martin said. “You have to be able to craft a compelling message in three sentences or less. You’re got to be an expert or a pseudo-expert in how these channels work. You have to be willing to adapt.”
Mikell Frey knows all about that adaptability. She was hired as the communications coordinator for the city of East Lansing in 2006, when “social media wasn’t on the radar.”
“We were much more focused on print communication,” she said.%u2028When Frey started to notice local governments and official organizations jumping on the digital bandwagon, she realized she’d need to adapt and try it too. She started the city’s Twitter account in March 2009 and Facebook page in January 2011.
East Lansing now has almost 2,000 Facebook fans and more than 9,000 followers on Twitter.
“In the beginning, it was very much a ‘learn-as-you-go’ strategy,” she said.
Frey began turning to other cities for ideas, looking at the social media channels of cities like Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor to model East Lansing’s after.
Now, the city of East Lansing has a regular and reliable online presence. The city used social media to communicate heavily in the December 2013 ice storm. City manager George Lahanas posts a regular blog on the city’s website Frey also said because everything is coordinated and runs smoothly, social media only makes up about 10 percent of her job now.
“It’s not time-intensive and it’s very cost effective,” she said.