(Note: This is Part 1 in a three-part series on the evolving use of social media in government and campaigns. On Thursday, IdahoReporter.com will examine use of Twitter, Facebook and blogs among state lawmakers, both in campaigns and during legislative sessions. Saturday's story will focus on social media in congressional campaigns in Idaho.)
In a day and age when almost every celebrity and politician has a Twitter account or Facebook fan page, communication directors from several departments within the state government are beginning to utilize social media tools to reach out to the citizens of Idaho. Those tasked with department communication see social media as a way to efficiently and reach diverse audience across Idaho at no direct cost to the state.
Several state departments and entities have Twitter accounts or Facebook pages, including the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD), the Idaho Department of Labor, the Idaho State Board of Education, the Idaho Department of Commerce (IDOC), and the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation (IDPR), among many others. Departments will often use Twitter to make announcements and link followers to important news releases or other documents. ITD uses its Twitter account to warn drivers in southwest Idaho of lane closures, blockages, auto accidents, and of road construction. The Twitter feed for IDPR was used Tuesday to inform boaters around the state that inspection stations for boats are opening today.
Social media tools can also be used to drum up support for a certain government project or initiative. In February of this year, Gov. Butch Otter began a full court press attempt to garner new jobs for the state by asking the U.S. Air Force to bring F-35 joint strike fighters to Mountain Home Air Force Base in Mountain Home and Gowen Field in south Boise. Along with a press release touting why he believes Idaho to be the right place to station the new jets, Otter announced the creation of a new website to show support for the project. In conjunction with the website, IDOC created a Twitter account, which has 52 followers, and a Facebook fan page, which has 3,820 followers. Both were used to inform supporters of the jets of different avenues they could take to show that support to the Air Force. The two social media outlets were also used to relay web links to newspaper articles supportive of the state government's attempts to bring the jets to Idaho.
June Sparks, who runs the Twitter account and Facebook page for ITD, said that her department has been cautious to implement social media tools and has monitored their use throughout the implementation process. "We're taking baby steps," said Sparks. She said that because the outlets are representative of ITD, a state organization, she remains very cautious about the content delivered over Facebook and Twitter. She also realizes potential dangers of sending Twitter messages with traffic updates. "We don't tweet in real time," Sparks said. ITD officials also avoid sending updates through Twitter during rush hour traffic, when a crash due to distracted driving could clog state roadways.
The majority of ITD's tweets focus on the urban center of the state, the Treasure Valley. Sparks explained that due to recent large road construction projects on Interstate 84, which runs through Boise, Meridian, Nampa, and Caldwell, messages from ITD have centered around that area. She said that projects in the northern and eastern parts of the state, while typically smaller than those of the Boise metro, are still important and that she hopes to increase use of Twitter in those areas soon.
Mark Browning runs the Twitter account and Facebook page for the Idaho State Board of Education. He said that he loves Twitter because it gives him a central place to relay information to several different demographics of people. Twitter has its limitations, notes Browning. He said that because it limits message to 140 characters of text, Twitter messages are often more superficial that what he would like, though he also said that he links from the board's Twitter account to its Facebook page to provide more in-depth news. Even with the limitations on the messages, Browning said Twitter is good for what he needs it for. "Its upside far outweighs the downsides," said Browning.
Though social media presents communication directors with new avenues to provide information to those who seek it, Browning said that the old methods of public relations, such as press releases, face-to-face forums, and working with reporters will not expire with increased use of the new media. "It (social media) is just another thing for us to do," said Browning.
Jeff Walker and Marlene Mussler-Wright, both with Access Idaho, a private company that manages the state’s website along with its Twitter account, said they started utilizing social media as a tool to gain more feedback from citizens. Walker said that with older forms of political communication, including press releases, communication officers had no way to gauge the effectiveness of marketing and communication strategies. The duo said that they often measure the number of people who click on certain messages relayed through Facebook and Twitter, which helps them make adjustments to their social media techniques.
So what advice does Access Idaho have for other government entities that might be struggling to maintain an effective social media presence? Mussler-Wright says the key for departments is to keep messages conversational, free of opinion, timely, and down to a minimum. She said that she tries to send Twitter messages 3-5 times per day so followers of the state’s Twitter account don’t become overwhelmed with information.