For Planners, Investment in Social Media Pays Dividends

With the right approach, social media can expedite the exchange of information between stakeholders, facilitate participatory planning, and build better places. Two case studies offer insight for using social media to connect with communities.
May 3, 2013, 3pm PDT | Jessica Hsu
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Jason A. Howie

As social media strategies recently employed by Los Angeles's Department of City Planning and New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority demonstrate, social media networks can be useful tools in connecting planners and public agencies to their communities. Their experiences show that an open conversation between decision-makers and the general public is important for creating more livable communities, and offer lessons for those considering utilizing such platforms.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media platforms enable planners and organizations to build awareness of causes, provide the most up-to-date news, and engage the community in planning processes. “I think we've seen in the past few years that social media has a really important place in planning,” said Jane Choi, Planning Assistant at the City of Los Angeles. “The social media tools we have help us to engage the public in a more dynamic way.” In November 2011, she and Claire Bowin, City Planner at the City of Los Angeles, launched an integrated social media strategy utilizing Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, a blog, and an online town hall for LA/2B, the public outreach campaign helping to steer the replacement of the General Plan’s Transportation Element with a new “Mobility” Element.

Choi adds, “There is transparency and value in people re-tweeting and re-blogging and helping us get the message out. Having a strong web presence helps people to find us instead of us going out to find them in a city of 3.8 million people.” The LA/2B project has collected surveys and feedback from more than a thousand members in the city, and the input has been used to help craft the goals and policies for the Mobility Element and its Complete Streets Network.

LA/2B's Facebook page integrates content from their Wordpress blog

“The whole idea is that social media is flexible. It's human. It's direct contact,” said Adam Lisberg, Director of External Communications at New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). The subsidiary agencies of the MTA have separate Facebook pages and Twitter feeds that provide basic service information. The @NYCTSubwayScoop Twitter feed is one of their most accessed social media features with over 50,000 followers. “Every weekend, we do a lot of maintenance work because that's when passenger volume is lower. We have to take tracks out of service, and it's an inconvenience for customers who are affected by it. One of the things we're trying to do is to show our customers that there's a real long-term benefit,” explains Lisberg. “So we post photos under the heading 'Weekend at Work' where we show crews hammering away at the roadbed, removing old track and installing new track, pouring new concrete, and lifting a switch into place. They're enormously popular to the general public, and it says this is why we have to do what we're doing.”

Traditional outreach may be fitting for older generations, but Millennials are more accustomed to laptops and smartphones than to newsletters and workshops. “Twenty years ago, people turned on the television and the radio if they wanted to know what was going on. Now, people look at their Facebook and Twitter feeds to see what their friends are saying,” said Lisberg. “This is where our customers are, and this is where we need to be.”

On participatory planning for LA/2B, Choi said, “Traditionally, we haven't seen a lot of the 25-40 age group participating in our city-wide planning processes, but through using social media and our online town hall, we've been able to reach that part of the population.” The project, which relies on public feedback, also uses social media to reach out to the busy individuals “who may not have time to go to a meeting on a weeknight or Saturday morning” and “allows people to participate on their own time rather than have to show up in-person.”

Planners who want to get on social media can start with the most popular networks: Facebook (over 800 million users) and Twitter (over 200 million users). Facebook offers the opportunity for planners and organizations to promote their work to a broad audience. They can build a profile page to explain whom they are and what causes they are advocating. Quality posts and status updates can engage people, and “likes” and activity will catch the attention of followers' friends. This allows a community to directly reach the decision-makers, while also interacting with others who may share the same thoughts.

Twitter is a “microblogging service” in which users can send “tweets” up to 140 characters. The limited content makes for fast and dynamic conversations, and hashtags (marked by #) allow users to look up topics of interest. The platform is valuable for planners and organizations interested in providing up-to-date information, learning about trending issues and hearing viewpoints directly from their citizens.

Even though Facebook and Twitter are the most popular networks, status updates and tweets are only the beginning of an effective social media strategy. For example, the LA/2B project also uses a blog, online town hall, and Flickr account; several agencies in the MTA use podcasts, Flickr, Tumblr and YouTube, which can be found on their social media page. The idea of handling so many social media platforms may be daunting to planners, but Facebook and Twitter have the advantage of integration with other social media and blogging services. This means that users do not have to spend the time-consuming process of updating information on each account because they can embed feeds on connected networks. “We decided to start with Facebook and Twitter, as well as WordPress, because there's easy integration between them,” said Choi. “There's also integration with our online town hall so when we publish a blog post, it automatically tells our Twitter and Facebook communities that there's a new blog post up that people can review.”

MTA Insider tweets during Hurricane Sandy

While planners will most likely use social media to collect information from the community or to provide service information, these networking tools were effectively utilized by the MTA to convey emergency information during Hurricane Sandy.  “At first, we were putting things out there because we had access that no one else had,” said Lisberg. “Our crews are trained and equipped to get into spaces that we couldn't bring thirty television cameras through. This was the most recent information we had, and the most up-to-date images of what was out there. It served our purpose in telling New York what we were facing.” The organization used Facebook and Twitter to provide coverage of the high flooding and winds, direct followers to useful information about assistance, and share links to photos on Flickr and videos on YouTube that showed the damage. The timeliness of the updates and the convincing use of visuals were two key parts of the strategy, said Aaron Donovan, a Deputy Director of External Communications for the MTA, and he noted that there was a huge uptake in followers after the storm to their @MTAInsider feed on Twitter. Two-thirds of their current followers signed up during Sandy. The MTA’s Sandy-related social media efforts were praised in laudatory articles in the New York Times and Buzzfeed.

Images posted to Flickr kept New Yorkers abreast of recovery efforts

Social media has proven useful in planning for organizations like LA/2B and MTA, but planners and other relevant organizations do not yet have a strong presence on these networks compared to individual users and businesses. “Planners are getting more well versed in how to use social media. We've come a long way, but we have a long ways to go,” said Choi, who added that one of the biggest challenges for LA/2B is a lack of personnel for consistent maintenance of the different accounts. Lisberg also cited the personnel challenge and added that the MTA is grappling with the expectation for one-to-one communication over social media. “I think the next step is to deepen the feeling of a relationship between our customers and the agency,” he said. “You can have 10,000 people tweeting a complaint about what happened on their commute in the morning. Is there an expectation that we reply to all of them? I hope not because we certainly don't have the capacity to. But what are the parameters, and what is the nature of that relationship?” It's up to you, planners, to help test the waters.

Jessica Hsu is the Public Information Officer for the City of San Gabriel. She is a former Editorial Intern with Planetizen.

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