Shawnee & Lenexa

As social media evolve, cities scramble to keep up

Text messages about street closures, tweets about events and those Facebook picture albums of the hometown concert in the park. They all seem like just another part of the “free” information age.

But as social media is increasingly used by city governments, some cities in Johnson County have come to another realization: All that Facebook updating is time-consuming and anything but free. In fact, it can swamp city staffers who have taken on public communication in addition to their other administrative duties.

Those cities have hired a communications manager or are considering putting it into already tight budgets. “Like” it or not.

Case in point: Shawnee.

City Manager Carol Gonzales has proposed the city allocate $70,000 to add a communications specialist. The details of that position — for example whether it’s full- or part-time — haven’t been worked out, and Gonzales said the pay could be more or less, depending on what the council decides.

The council will have several meetings on its budget before the final presentation, which is scheduled for Tuesday. A public hearing would be scheduled for July 22, she said.

Shawnee is the latest of the county’s most populous cities to seriously consider a full- or part-time public information officer. Olathe, Overland Park and Lenexa all have staffers to take care of city communications. And Leawood council members touched on the idea at a work session in February as they discussed a Facebook page for their Parks and Recreation Department.

Like many other communities, Shawnee has up to this point delegated its communications duties to staffers who already have other administrative jobs. But reviewing comments and constantly updating the social media pages has proved so time-consuming that it’s difficult to keep up, Gonzales said. The city would benefit from hiring a person with a communications background to focus on social media, as well as writing articles for city publications, answering letters from the public, dealing with media requests and writing award applications for the city, she said.

Driving the Shawnee discussion is a city survey done last year, she said. “We got okay ratings, but the message was that more people like to be engaged and informed.”

According to the 2012 survey by Olathe’s ETC Institute, about three-quarters of residents were generally satisfied with the city’s communications. In the same survey, 61 percent of residents were satisfied with the leadership of elected officials and 57 percent were satisfied with the city manager’s office.

Gonzales told a council work committee recently that the survey results on city communications could stand some improvement. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed reported being satisfied with the city’s efforts to keep the public informed.

“That’s a D,” she told council members. “I think we can do a whole lot better.”

Shawnee residents are hungry for more information about what their city is doing, Gonzales said. For example, meetings about storm water, trails and road projects last March were “packed,” with people wanting to know what is happening in their neighborhoods, she said.

“People want that kind of information and we want to be able to do more of that,” she said. “With the resources we have now, it’s a real struggle to make those kinds of things happen.”

The idea isn’t without naysayers, however. One blogger, Shawnee Ray, has suggested the city would be better served by using the money to bring back the July 4th fireworks and has asked his readers to email their thoughts to the council.

Although smaller than Shawnee, Lenexa has a three-person communications staff including a supervisor who does strategic planning, a coordinator who handles social media and newsletters and a graphic artist. This year the city expects to spend about $360,000 for its total communications budget.

The city views its communications department as an important way for the city to be open with residents, said Kristen Waggener, communications coordinator.

Leawood, smaller still, discussed how it would handle the additional workload of a parks and rec Facebook page to celebrate the department’s 40th anniversary. For the time being, the information technology department is handling it, although the prospect of an additional staffer was raised briefly.

Johnson County cities are not alone in the trend toward hiring communications staffers. As the bar for instant information lifts constantly higher, many cities throughout the country are considering the addition of employees. Glen Thomas, president of the National Association of Government Communicators, said there are no industry figures on number of new positions being created, but he believes digital communication and an expectation of government transparency has created those hiring opportunities.

“Even smaller communities are definitely seeing a void that needs to be filled,” he said. “Someone needs to be that liaison between government and the people.”

In the past, he said, cities would send out news releases and public service announcements. “Fourteen years ago, when I started, we had a fax list,” he said.

But computers and smartphones have radically changed the way people get information and the speed they expect it, he said.

“For government officials, we often find ourselves a little bit behind.”