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Mayors Exchange Strategies on Using Social Media

By Debra DeHaney-Howard and David Burns
January 30, 2012

Conference Membership Chair Piscataway Mayor Brian Wahler convened a special Mayors' session titled "Social Media: Learning How Mayors Communicate with Their Constituencies Today" at the closing luncheon of the 80th Winter Meeting in Washington (DC).

"Because of considerable advances in technology and social media outlets, mayors are communicating with their constituents in a variety of ways, which include Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, and many others," Wahler told participants gathered at the January 20 special session.

"We are acutely aware of the benefits of this new way of communicating, but we also know that it has some challenges. We must align our communication strategy with our social media and technology strategy if we are to be successful with this new communication," Wahler said.

Moderated by Conference of Mayors CEO and Executive Director Tom Cochran, the Mayors' Special Session on Social Media gave further definition to an emerging issue for mayors across the country. Clarksville Mayor Kim McMillan, Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and Westland Mayor William Wild joined Cochran and Wahler at the session, speaking to the most pressing issues mayors face related to social media.

Cochran talked about the benefits of social media and also spoke about it how it has been used as an organizing tool for and against mayors and other elected officials. Cochran said, "This is an issue that continues to come up in all of our meetings, more and more mayors are connecting with their constituents through Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools." Cochran stated that, "The membership committee is focusing on this because mayors are having incredible budget problems and yet the new media we have makes it very easy to do a recall."

Following his remarks, Cochran engaged the panel in a dialogue on the benefits and challenges of social media and asked them to share their strategies in using this new communication tool.

McMillan shared how her communications strategy has been developed to incorporate the use of social media. She added that "social media is wonderful tool, but don't let it drive your message because once you start it, it doesn't stop and then you become overwhelmed with responding to the messages."

Following McMillan's comments, Suttle shared his thoughts, focusing on how he used social media when he faced a recall campaign against him just hours after his election. "Mayors need to hire a strong press and media person and that person needs to maximize all the social media tools," Suttle remarked. He continued, "I now have four people working with me to communicate the message and stay ahead of it. The key to it is the social media and we are doing a lot more our website."

Wild cited social media and the role it played in two recall initiative to against him. Wild said, "Run an efficient and transparent administration like I know we all do, be aggressive. Once elected, you can't lock yourself in an office. Keep that campaign mentality 365 days a year or someone else may do it against you." He continued, "Social media is the best way to do it."

Panel members offered their insights on what mayors can do to avoid the pitfalls of social media. McMillan told the mayors, "There are many actions you can take to avoid it being used against you, including establishing a strong set of protocols."

During the open discussion, mayors shared their individual stories and asked questions about appropriate strategies for responding to negatives comments and strategies to raise awareness of community issues.

This discussion is likely to continue in future Conference of Mayors meetings, including specific discussions on best practices, emerging tools, and integrating the tools with your current staff and strategies.