We’re continuing our series in the Cookingham Connection with a perspective from an emerging leader in local government. You heard what the city administrator of Fort Smith, Arkansas had to say about Cookingham’s 14th guidepost. Now hear it from the perspective of Kyler Ludwig. Kyler is the Assistant to the City Administrator for the City of Goddard, Kansas. He earned his MPA from the University of Kansas.
Be sure to develop good press relations; give all the time necessary to help the press, radio, and other media to keep the public informed, because any one of these media can ruin your program with very little effort.
In the story of Rip Van Winkle written by Washington Irving, the protagonist, Rip Van Winkle, escapes the nagging of his wife by wandering into the mountains. While in the mountains, Rip falls into a deep sleep for twenty years. During this twenty years, Rip slept through the American Revolution, the death of his wife, the marriage of his daughter, and the birth of his grandson.
In many ways, media—especially social media—can feel like Van Winkle’s nagging wife to a city manager, but like the story explains, trying to escape or ignore the situation will only lead to missing out on revolution and one of the most exciting times in history.
Though looking to the 1950s for a guide to dealing with social media might seem absurd, “The Guideposts for City Managers” given by L.P. Cookingham in 1956 remain relevant when received through a lens of media changes. Cookingham suggests keeping the public informed through good relationships with the press. This is sound advice for any city manager, but it is important to know who the press is in a media climate that is quite different from that of the mid-1900s.
One of the major changes we have seen in media has developed over the last decade with the devolution of power from the nightly news anchors to anybody with internet access or a smartphone. At one time, figures like Edward R. Murrow commanded the stream of information that came into a home. Today, Twitter feeds and blogs are a 24-hour source of news and opinions. Even major world events have been broken via tweets—@keithurbahn broke the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death before it was publicly announced, while Bin Laden’s neighbor unknowingly live tweeted the Seal Team 6 mission (@ReallyVirtual). Social media has become so integrated in society that news organizations cannot deny their influence now dedicating entire programing segments to trending topics.
This devolution of media authority has changed the game dramatically. Controlling the message to the press is no longer something that can take place at the golf course or at a restaurant over lunch. Every teen with a smartphone is a news anchor, and every mom with a blog is a journalist. If Cookingham saw this exchange of power, I believe he would advise managers to consider everyone with whom they talk to be a member of the press and to evolve the idea of fostering relations with the press to taking responsibility to devote the time necessary to engage with and inform the public directly through social media, and a more natural engagement process.
Though I would never consider myself a popular guy (I would probably be better considered a nerd), my Facebook account instantly puts my opinions, ideas, and interests into the hands hundreds of people. With a simple click, my posts can then be shared with my Facebook friends’ followers, making my influence potentially exponential. This change in media can be intimidating for many, especially those who have been in the profession longer than I have been alive, but this fast-moving social network also has the ability to help make government more open, and help reduce the information asymmetries that exist between residents and bureaucrats.
Social media is a great way for the City to control the information going to the public. In August of 2014, the residents of Goddard voted on a one-cent sales tax without a sunset. In a fiscally conservative city, during a primary election, the ballot initiative passed with 74% in favor. There was some press coverage, so a relationship with newspaper staff and television reporters was crucial, but a great deal of the positive press was seen on the internet. The City controlled a positive message about the purpose for the tax to help educate citizens on the vote’s impact. Prior to the election, the City’s website saw the number of visitors double, and the Facebook analytics showed that Facebook posts were being seen by ten times the average audience. Controlling the message in social media was a major factor in why the sales tax passed so dramatically.
Cookingham’s guidepost regarding media relations ends with the warning that a rough relationship with the press can “ruin your program with very little effort”; however, it is important to remember that a positive relationship can result in building, promoting, and engaging residents in a city’s programs, organizations, and processes. Seeing residents as citizens, newsmakers, and journalists can develop new relationship ties to involve individuals in numbers never before seen and with an interest only social media can create, which is definitely not something to sleep through.
The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.