Should planners get into social media?

Facebook and Twitter can be effective ways for small local governments to increase engagement in planning decisions.

A group of community planners from local and tribal governments in Charlevoix and Emmet Counties and Michigan State University Extension got together recently to talk about social media – specifically Facebook and Twitter. They discussed whether it makes sense or not for their governmental unit to use these methods to communicate with residents about planning matters.

Social networking is a big deal. The Pew Research Internet Project reports that 73 percent of online adults now use some form of social networking. Ninety percent of 18-29 year-olds use social media. A smaller percentage of older adults use them, but the rate of use by adults 50 years and older is increasing at a greater rate than younger adults. Facebook is still by far the most dominant social networking site. In addition to communicating with friends and relatives, social media is a way to share and receive information.

The City of Boyne City created a Facebook page in November 2013 to complement their web site as a way to share information and receive input from city residents. All sorts of information about city meetings and notices is published on that site. Anyone, whether or not they are a Facebook user, can access the page and see all of the information posted to date; Facebook users can comment and see posts on their personal news feed. Recently, city planners posted images of a proposed dog park to spread the word about the project and receive comments. While not a substitute for other forms of input, the Facebook page created one more way for residents to conveniently learn about, and offer their perspectives on, a matter that affects the city.

Also highlighted during the meeting was the Little Traverse Bay Band Mobility Coordination page. Rather than encompassing an entire governmental unit, this page focusses on a specific program.

Twitter is another popular social media tool used by local planners. Messages (called “tweets”) sent via Twitter are limited to 140 characters in length, and are effective for distributing short reminders, news, photos and links. The key is gaining followers – users who choose to receive your messages. Like Facebook, Twitter is most effective when used and checked frequently. Boyne City added a Twitter account in 2013 and tweets to citizens on a weekly basis. This fits with their overall emphasis to use social media to enhance citizen education and engagement in the city’s decision-making processes.

While setting up a Facebook or Twitter page is relatively easy, local policies and procedures need to be in place governing who can post information and maintain the site, and how to handle inappropriate comments that might appear on the page. The Michigan Municipal League web site references several example social media policy documents from Michigan Communities.

Despite the opportunities to reach a broader group of residents, social media use for planning takes time. Because of its immediacy, new information needs to be added frequently, and pages must be checked at least daily to monitor comments. For communities without staff support willing to take on these tasks, social media may not be the best option.

Even in small northern Michigan communities, developing a social media presence can be an effective way to get more residents engaged in planning decisions. Using free tools like Facebook and Twitter requires just a little bit of set-up time and a modest commitment to add and check content.

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