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Should Vermont Towns Use Facebook? Two Towns' Approaches

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Manchester VT Facebook PageOur project has highlighted the role and power of social media, especially Facebook, in assisting both nonprofit organizations and small businesses in expanding audience, getting donations, and increasing sales revenue. It has also touted the role that Front Porch Forum can play in bringing a community closer to together.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about why Vermont town officials would want to leverage social media to augment municipal communications and how they may choose to do so. In fact, this is the subject of a session I have organized for the 69th Annual Town Officers’ Education Conferences that take place later this month. Joining me in this training session called “Municipal Communication: Best Practices and Legal Considerations” is attorney Charles Merriman and Front Porch Forum CEO, Michael Wood-Lewis.

I’m particularly interested in how Vermont towns feel about engaging with Facebook to advance their interests, and that’s the bulk of what I plan to discuss in the training. I discovered that the Town of Manchester has a great Facebook page with nearly 3,000 followers and that my own home town of Ludlow not only doesn’t have one, but it’s not really interested in starting one. So, I decided to sit down with the two town managers to understand why the two towns are so different. Not only did I discover why each town feels differently about Facebook, but I also realized that they’re both right. Let me explain.

John O’Keefe is the Town Manager down in Manchester, VT. He took over that role in early 2007. By 2011, he was personally very active on Facebook and wondered if it might make sense for the town to have its own Facebook presence.  So, he did some legwork, which included working with the Vermont League of Cities & Towns, and adopting a Social Media Policy.  

“We launched our town’s Facebook page by the spring of 2011 to remove the number of layers between our message and our constituents. I feel strongly that our social media presence saves money in getting our messages out, helps spread communication and data more easily, directs messages to the source without anyone in between, allows us to get more messages out than traditional media would want to cover, and helps us to drive the economy with event promotion,” explains John O’Keefe, Manchester Town Manager.

It turns out the town’s timing was prophetic. The Friday before Tropical Storm Irene made landfall in Vermont, O’Keefe and the other town officers decided that Facebook would be their main outlet for regular communication updates. At that time, they had around 300 followers.  Quite literally over night, after the storm hit, the number of followers increased to thousands.

Today, the page has 2,700 followers. Four of Manchester’s municipal employees each have administrative access to the Facebook page, and work together in Hootsuite to manage posts for both Facebook and Twitter. Although there was significant planning and discussion up-front, O’Keefe insists that each of the 4 administrators spend less than one hour per week on social media.

Other tips from the Manchester team include only allowing others to make comments to the postings, and not be able to post themselves. Town officials also need to be quick to respond to email notifications of comments to make sure that the page is family friendly and constructive.

After talking with John down in Manchester, I made an appointment to meet up with the Municipal Manager, Frank Heald, and Pam Cruickshank, Office Manager, in my hometown of Ludlow. Ludlow doesn’t have an official Facebook page and I was interested to know why.

“No one else has ever asked us why we don’t have a Facebook page and most things people need are available on our town website. We’re really good at keeping that as updated as possible. And, although we understand that it is not interactive with the community, we feel very strongly that if we are going to have a Facebook page, it must be vibrant and we must be really clear about whose responsibility it is to keep it updated,” explained Pam Cruickshank, the Town of Ludlow’s Office Manager.

We also discussed the many organizations in Ludlow that are very active with events and with social media, including Ludlow Parks & Recreation Department, Friends of Ludlow Auditorium, Okemo Mountain Resort, and the Okemo Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce.  After talking it through, we all agreed that it just doesn’t make sense for the town to reach out to the community to regurgitate the events that all of these other groups are already doing. However, since they are so great about keeping the town website updated, they agreed it’s time to leverage the Ludlow Front Porch Forum to proactively update townspeople on municipal events and deadlines related to town business, including property taxes, dog licenses, select board meetings and the like.

What became really clear to me after spending time in both Manchester and Ludlow is that every Vermont community and municipal office is different. Facebook and other forms of social media usage are great ways to augment other forms of communication. However, like anything else, the town has to engage these tools deliberately and reach a decision that fits in with their strategy, their personality, and their resource level.

To find out more information about what towns should consider before engaging in social media, please attend our afternoon session at the upcoming Town Officers' Educational Conferences.

This training is designed for Vermont’s municipal officials and citizen volunteers and is scheduled for 3 locations later this month. The conferences will run from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. with on-site registration beginning at 8 a.m. Dates and locations are:

  • April 2: Lake Morey Resort, 1 Clubhouse Rd., Fairlee.
  • April 9: Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center, 870 Williston Rd., South Burlington.
  • April 23: Killington Grand Resort Hotel and Conference Center, 228 East Mountain Rd., Killington.

To register, please go online here. The conference brochure with more information is available here.

For more resources on the municipal use of social media, download this handout.

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