Recognize any of these? 4 Challenges City PIOs Experience in Managing Social Media

So, you’re a PIO? We know, you’ve got a really tough job.

As the mouthpiece of the city administration, you’re the one who needs to relay information in a crisis and provide updates about new projects and initiatives. And in today’s non-stop, 24-hour news cycle, your role is even more stressful as you have to make quick decisions about what to say, when, and how. Connecting with residents is important, and given the nature of your job, you face many challenges in doing this successfully.

For starters, there are endless media sources, but not enough time to stay on top of them. And while you need to develop campaign strategies based on KPIs, it’s not always easy to track them. Another problem is one of reach: you want to be in touch with all residents in the city, but it’s typically the same small group that responds to your attempts to reach out. And then there are the challenges you face with your own colleagues; people working in other municipal departments who tend to make your job harder by working independently rather than collaboratively.

How’s any single person meant to keep up? You’re not alone. Here is a look at some of the main issues we’ve watched PIOs face as the chief communicator for City Hall.

1. Limited Resources But Tons of Media Sources

That budget cut everyone was talking about last month? It also hit your department, of course. As pointed out by this Brookings report, the one thing about city budgets you can always be certain of is that they are uncertain. But you’re not alone. It’s not just in your city, it’s happening everywhere.

Admittedly, you have no choice, and you’re going to have to “make do” and manage the job with super limited resources and an understaffed team. Making this tougher is the fact that there’s tons of information out there and the online world is non-stop, and it’s near impossible to process and understand it all. And obviously, you can’t forget about traditional media sources, like the papers and local morning news show.

We’re knee-deep in data – living in an age where there’s information (and often misinformation) coming at residents 24/7. So how do you get a grip of all this with almost no budget? Even if you had a team of 20, it would still be impossible to manage all the activity out there, and we feel for you. There’s too much to do and not enough time to do it. And this brings us to the second challenge: Figuring out which social media channels and publicity campaigns actually work by measuring KPIs.

2. Staying on Top of the Your KPIs

KPIs are crucial in evaluating the success of campaigns and helping you figure out which communication strategies are most effective. They give you insight into the impact of your work by helping you determine whether you are getting the mayor’s messaging across to the public. It’s difficult to make time for measurement but you’ve got to, as metrics are what give you the edge in putting together effective communications strategies.

In the City of Garden Grove, CA, for example, the local government invested in developing a clear and comprehensive communications strategy that includes measurement. Their process includes checking the reach of particular messages through individual communication channels, and comparing different communications methods to see which one has the highest participation levels.

Corona, CA‘s local government is on the same page, placing the emphasis on measuring KPIs and conducting real-time performance measurement of its communications campaigns. And their use of KPIs has served them well. In one instance, using ZenCity’s platform, they were alerted to a rise in negative sentiment about the local government on social media, which resulted from a tragic story – the discovery of an abandoned, deceased infant’s body by the Police Department.

Social media discussions surrounding the incident spiked and included a lot of misunderstanding about Safe Surrender, a California policy that lets someone safely and legally surrender a newborn infant, no-questions-asked. With the information gained from ZenCity, Corona successfully implemented a new communications strategy in real-time to correct the misinformation about Safe Surrender and respond to the growing crisis. Ultimately they succeeded in accomplishing every PIOs dream - transforming a ton of negative discourse in the city and a negative event into an opportunity for positive communication with residents.

3. Overcoming the STP – “Same Ten People”

What do you do about the fact that it’s the “Same Ten People” who show up to City Hall or complain about that pothole on the city’s Facebook page?

As pointed out in our earlier post, the STP often have the loudest voices in the city. And clearly they’re not the only audience you need to be communicating with. When push comes to shove, you might even be more interested in the needs and wants of the “silent majority.” So you do your best to gain insight into the sentiment of the “silent majority” using social media. Because social media is data at your fingertips, the key is to understanding it. As GovTech influencer Stephen Goldsmith puts it, “With these digital tools, citizens and their officials can revolutionize local government, making it more responsive, transparent, and cost-effective than it has ever been” (see The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance).

But this also adds to the complexity of your job. Most feedback – in fact, a full 86 percent of social media responses to municipal issues happens on non-official social media pages that are not managed by City Hall. And your social media monitoring needs to take this into account by sifting through the noise and figuring out how to reach all your residents to rise above the vocal minority. This represents a major challenge.

By finding ways to move beyond STP, cities can gain a more insightful understanding of where residents stand and how they feel. It’s not easy, but it’s an important part of making municipal decisions that are on target with residents’ needs.

4. Streamlining Across City Departments

Anybody can make a Facebook page… And that might be exactly what’s happening in your city.

The Police Department, Parks and Rec, the Public Library – the list goes on. How do you get all of the city’s different departments on board in sharing their great work with residents through social media collaboratively, rather than separately? When there are so many different pages and accounts for different departments, it takes a ton of effort to manage and oversee all of the activity. If things can be streamlined, it saves time and more work can get done.

A good example of this is in Philadelphia, where the city recently implemented several new procedures to streamline internal procedures and save time – and it’s made a huge difference at City Hall. By taking the time to work collaboratively, you avoid wasting and duplicating efforts and can keep track of social media efforts more successfully.

Making It All Work – The Challenges of Being a PIO in the Digital Age

PIOs have a tough job that’s high pressure, as you’re sandwiched between the city or town you represent on the one hand, and the residents you care about on the other. And while social media can be a great tool to help you achieve your goals, sometimes, it can also throw a wrench right into all of the amazing work you strive to do.

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But it’s not all doom and gloom. Keeping an “eye on the prize” by investing time in important communications processes can make a big difference to your success. Despite the obvious challenges, by making sure to invest in monitoring social media sources, setting and staying on top of KPIs, reaching beyond the “STP,” and streamlining social media efforts across city departments, you can stay in touch with residents and provide the information and responses that they need.

At ZenCity, we strive to help you overcome these four challenges (and a few others as well). If you want to learn more about how we can help your communications team work more efficiently and tackle some of the issues we outlined above, reach out and we’re happy to help out!


Inbal Naveh Safir

Written by Inbal Naveh Safir

Marketing Pro
A San Francisco Bay Area native, I fell in love with the Tel Aviv beaches and never left. I'm excited about technology for good, local government, and good food, and I'm hopelessly devoted to my adorable toddler, Leo.