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City officials learn from Roanoke expert on community engagement
Roanoke Facebook community engagement
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City of Roanoke, Facebook
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Julie Zink | Wednesday, November 15, 2017 at 5:22 p.m.

As Charlottesville officials discuss ways to improve communications with city residents, the PLACE Design Task Force was briefed recently on lessons learned by another Virginia city.

The task force was created in 2012 to advise the City Council and inform the community on urban design issues. One of its tasks is to recommend best practices for community engagement in planning and design.

The panel met with Timothy Martin, former head of Roanoke’s Office of Citizen Engagement, last week. Martin explained how social media came to the forefront of Roanoke’s community engagement efforts following a four-day snowstorm in February 2013.

“I really saw [the storm] as opportunity to use [Roanoke’s] social media platforms as a news story,” he said.

Martin and the community engagement team posted more than 60 updates on social media about the storm, including road conditions, accident reports, plowing updates and other information essential to the public.

The Office of Citizen Engagement also asked residents to contribute their own storm experiences to Roanoke’s Facebook page. They received hundreds of photos of the storm from residents and gained thousands of “likes” and “shares.”

The influx of attention to the Facebook page brought on by the storm showed Roanoke leaders the potential that social media had for community engagement, Martin said.

“That was really the moment where everybody [working for the city] said, this is an area that we have some traction in that we can now focus on,” he said.

From there, Martin brought together the social media managers from the city’s various departments to come up with a united social media goal and set of guidelines.

These guidelines included a quota for the number of posts and photos shared in a day.

Martin highlighted the need for the city’s social media managers to have creative freedom to promote their departments to their own customers and followers, whom they know and understand best.

Roanoke eventually increased the number of Facebook pages it uses and even brought in professional content creators for its most popular pages, including Police and Parks and Recreation.

“Roanoke’s use of social media for alerts and updates was … impressive,” noted Charlottesville City Councilor Kathy Galvin. “I couldn’t help but wonder if a more active social media presence in Charlottesville would have helped us better communicate with our community last summer in the face of white supremacist and nationalist rallies.”

Lisa Green, chairwoman of Charlottesville’s Planning Commission, said that using Facebook to inform the community of events and community engagement meetings is a “no brainer.”

“I’ve been screaming this for about five years now,” she said.

On the other hand, Green pointed out that Facebook is not used by everyone.

Martin agreed that the social media model for community engagement does not reach all residents.

To supplement its social media outreach, Roanoke has a unified portal that shares social media posts from multiple departments on one website.

“It just depends on where you are,” Martin said. “Every community is different and their preferences for community engagement platforms are different, as well.”

On the West Coast, Martin said, Twitter hosts the most popular local government pages. In Roanoke, citizens lean toward Facebook to stay informed.

“Facebook by far gives you more opportunity to do anything … because you can create events, you can create groups, you can do live video a lot easier than you can on other [social media] platforms,” said Martin.

Roanoke also uses live Facebook video to broadcast events ranging from holiday parades to government and neighborhood meetings.

“Did you have any experience with people … trying to ‘un-promote’ your city [on social media]?” Planning Commission member Genevieve Keller asked.

The city of Charlottesville’s social media accounts, specifically Facebook and the Police Department page, have received an influx of negative comments and reviews since this summer.

“We need to address [the negative comments] instead of being afraid of them,” Green responded. “We need to change the narrative of our city.”

“The use of Facebook … could be the quickest, most cost-effective solution [to community engagement],” Galvin said.

Finding an effective way to engage Charlottesville residents has been discussed repeatedly by local officials over the past several years.

In 2014, then-Assistant City Manager David Ellis and city spokeswoman Miriam Dickler proposed a number of ideas for citizen engagement tools, including a 3-1-1 telephone system option.

In March, the city signed a five-year contract for that project with the Acella Corp., which will provide a software platform for civic engagement and complaint tracking. The system’s implementation has been delayed until 2018.

The city also is currently searching for a new communications director after Dickler announced recently that she will be leaving her position.

In March, Galvin proposed the addition of a new high-level position to oversee urban planning and neighborhood engagement. The City Council authorized the position but it has not been filled yet.

In May, the PLACE Design Task Force recommended that this position “be tasked with the care and oversight of the future vision for the built environment, including long-range planning, place-making and design for the city.”

“I’ve been advocating for the community engagement specialist to be housed within our office of communications, and that is how they did it in Roanoke,” Galvin said.

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