While researching county government and social media, County Progress came across the Hidalgo County Facebook page. After spending additional time on the county website, it became clear that Hidalgo County had done their homework. Visit http://www.co.hidalgo.tx.us/, click on the Social Media link, and you’ll find the following message:
Hidalgo County Public Affairs Division is dedicated to keeping citizens up-to-date on all county events and activities through our social media pages. These pages give citizens an in-depth look at the inner workings of Hidalgo County government, through stories, pictures and video.
“Like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.
We asked Hidalgo County to share their social media experience including a development timeline. Answers were provided by the County Judge’s Office and the Hidalgo County Public Affairs Division.
Why did Hidalgo County decide to employ social media? What are the benefits?
Hidalgo County decided to employ the use of social media to augment traditional media sources (print, radio and television) to reach constituents in a direct and timely manner. While traditional media has always been a valuable source of outreach, what we as a local government see as useful information for residents may not necessarily be considered “newsworthy” by the media. Typically, “good news” is usually trumped by the more spectacular headlines of the day. While our local media outlets are generally extremely supportive when there is critical information to share with residents, such as emergency communications, new programs or procedures, and other major news, Hidalgo County felt that utilizing social media would help to better directly reach constituents and promote county news, events and activities.
Through the power of social media networks, the county saw an opportunity to directly access the public to share and promote its positive news to a new generation of voters, residents and others, instead of seeing government through the limited lens of traditional media. The benefits are plentiful. Social media has been an extremely cost-effective manner of increasing the county’s presence among residents.
Hidalgo County has been utilizing and benefiting from various alternative means of communicating with residents since 2008, when then-County Judge J. D. Salinas began maintaining a personal blog, which was updated frequently with messages on issues of importance to county residents. In June 2008, Hidalgo County went “live” with an updated Web 2.0 website, which allowed for residents to actively engage with the latest news and updates from the county by subscribing to particular aspects of the website.
Later in 2008, the public information officer (PIO) for Judge Salinas began experimenting with social media site Twitter in October 2008 to prepare for live tweeting of the presidential election returns in November 2008.
Early tweets from the county were more of a personal nature, reporting on the PIO’s scheduled meetings and announcements, but also evolved into sharing news and information in regard to a wide variety of countywide issues, such as elections, fire season, prescription drug discount program, emergency management, and more. These were the first forays into social media, but as mentioned above, utilized a more personal voice – of the County Judge and his spokesperson. Judge Salinas began his personal Twitter account in 2009.
Hidalgo County began fully utilizing social media in a concerted, countywide effort as a means of communication with residents in July 2010, approximately three-and-a-half years ago. In May 2010, Hidalgo County Commissioners Court created the Hidalgo County Public Affairs Division (Division) to streamline certain functions of county operations related to public relations, media relations, governmental relations, and internal and external communications. The Division was tasked with the responsibility to increase public awareness and understanding of Hidalgo County government and to promote county activities by providing public relations services to county departments and offices. The charter mission of the Division was to facilitate effective, timely, and accurate communication services to county departments and offices, the public, and the media.
In July 2010, the Division created its Facebook social media site, primarily due to necessity. Hurricane Alex, and subsequent Tropical Storm Hermine, had struck the area and brought nearly devastating river and localized flooding situations. While utilizing traditional forms of media (print, television and radio outlets) was effective in relaying useful and important information related to the emergency operations, it became quickly evident that the message was more effectively and expeditiously delivered directly from the source. The county had already begun a regional Facebook site, RGVAlex, in conjunction with neighboring county and city public information officers to relay coordinated messages regarding the storm; it later became important to separate the messages according to specific location, which had varying situations. Thus, Hidalgo County’s Official Facebook site was born.
This was the first true countywide communications message through social media. From there, it took off. The Division began using a service provided by the county website service provider to feed website news posts directly to social media sites Facebook and Twitter. As more social media sites became ubiquitous and widely used, the county remained at the forefront of taking advantage of the inexpensive and effective uses of social media. Hidalgo County began using Google Picasa to upload, store and share photo albums; the Division also created a YouTube Government Account to store and share county video productions and public service announcements.
In 2012, the current administration of Hidalgo County Commissioners Court took office under the leadership of County Judge Ramon Garcia. To date, Judge Garcia and the members of Hidalgo County Commissioners Court have continued to remain extremely supportive of the county’s use of social media, and have seen the benefits of little to no cost investment in promotion and advertising. Under Judge Garcia’s administration, the Division has continued using the social media sites in creative manners to share a wide array of information, emergency communications, issues, events, activities, photos, features and more. The county also developed a monthly newsletter that is published electronically and printed and delivered to nearly 45,000 residents at a minimal print and distribution cost. So, in addition to traditional and social media, and in an effort to reach the most residents, the Division has been employing the use of alternative media outlets (such as the newsletter) to share county news while keeping those residents, especially those who are not accustomed to using social media, informed and aware.
Most recently, in 2013 the county began using the social media site Instagram. In 2014, the county will be utilizing LinkedIn and will create additional social accounts on Facebook and Twitter for employment postings in alignment with the transition to online job applications. Under Judge Garcia’s leadership, plans for the near future are to include the county’s outreach efforts to include creating a 24-7 broadcast television station to streamline video content and programming directly to residences as well as online.
Please provide a chronological history of your implementation of social media. What avenues do you use, and when did you launch them?
|Hidalgo County Social Media Timeline
|Month & Year Created
|Social Media Site
|Updated Website with Constituent Communications
|Google Picasa Web Albums
|YouTube (prior to then, hosted videos on county server/website)
|LinkedIn (for online job postings)
|Facebook – Hidalgo County Jobs (for online job postings)
|Twitter – Hidalgo County Jobs (for online job postings)
What was the cost to the county to enter the world of social media?
Zero. No new budget or salary financial impact. Existing personnel time was redirected to add these new responsibilities.
Who controls the content? How do you decide what content to share?
The Public Affairs Division controls all content on social media sites, with the director making the ultimate decision. We have adopted guidelines and standard operating procedures to help guide content. We share county news and updates, information on meetings of Commissioners Court, and photo and video coverage of county events and activities. We generally share any new content that is on our county website on our social media sites.
Is the public able to respond?
Yes, we have a disclaimer on our website with guidelines of decorum and prohibited content/behavior. All three employees of the Division monitor and regulate sites on a daily basis.
What are the challenges/pitfalls that come with social media?
Not really any, other than the growing pains associated with understanding the social media sites and how to best utilize them for our purposes and to our advantage. Growing our reach has taken time. Our Facebook account, for example, has a little over 2,000 “likes” or followers, which we have cultivated by personal appeals to our contacts from our personal profiles. We also encourage residents to “like” our page at county events. It may appear that one of the pitfalls might be not having enough likes or followers, but since Hidalgo County has no budget for advertising or promoting the page to obtain more likes, we are satisfied with the outcome that we have been able to gain for free. Our Twitter account continues to grow in followers, and we find that Twitter is a great way to access traditional media networks (via individual reporters and stations), since they often retweet our tweets to their expansive networks.
In our experience, we have rarely encountered challenging situations regarding the use of social media, probably because of our constant monitoring and our decorum disclaimer. The only challenge that we encounter on a regular basis might be a case of mistaken (or misdirected) identity. Our county is home to approximately 40 elected officials, and our social media accounts are not associated with any one official or department. It is intended to be used as a strategic, countywide voice or message. Most often, the county’s social media accounts are mistaken as a venue to direct comments or complaints to one of the elected officials or law enforcement entities. Our county social media accounts are used countywide, and are not personally nor directly affiliated with these officials; in fact, some officials actually maintain or use their own social media accounts, but they tend to be for their own personal use. If necessary, we will relay the information or question to the official or their staff directly; if the comment or complaint is not in accordance with our policy, we will handle accordingly. Sometimes, we will be “tagged” by media or users on Twitter or Facebook when they are reporting or commenting on information that is related to one of the county offices or officials, or law enforcement, and not directly associated with our countywide efforts. On Twitter, for example, there is not much we can do, and these “mentions” do not necessarily pose a problem or direct threat; most often, ignoring them is the best solution. If at any time, the situation does escalate, we are prepared to handle by contacting the user directly and asking them to refrain from mentioning or tagging our accounts since they are not related to any particular official or office.
One example comes to mind:
Recently, Hidalgo County, N.M, made national news in regard to an alleged assault after a traffic stop. Mistaking Hidalgo County, Texas, for Hidalgo County, N.M., we saw some Facebook users taking to our social media page to vent their opinions on the matter. We began to respond by just hiding and deleting the comments, since they were not abiding by our decorum policy. When there became more and more, we took it a step forward and directly messaged the users that they mistakenly had the wrong county.
What steps do you take to meet these challenges or avoid these pitfalls? (How do you handle misinformation?)
As mentioned earlier, closely monitoring the social media accounts and quickly diffusing any challenging situation is the best remedy to overcome any challenge. We also recommend establishing solid rules of decorum and abiding by them. It is also extremely important that the account maintains respect, tact and professionalism; we find, more often than not, that our account is treated in the same manner. One last word of advice – use spell check! Nothing invalidates the trustworthiness of an account more than poor spelling or grammar.
Many are reluctant to enter the world of social media because “anyone can say what they want when they want, and folks believe it!” Do you believe it is worth the effort, even with all of the potential pitfalls?
Absolutely! Especially for local governments that are strapped budgetary-wise – social media can be an extremely cost-effective means of relaying important information (and promoting positive news) to constituents.
Please share some of your “success” initiatives – when social media worked the way it was supposed to and really served your taxpayers.
In emergency situations, such as inclement weather or a public health emergency, we have found it extremely useful to directly share critical information with residents in a timely manner. We can update the details minute-by-minute, and we can have residents “share” the information with their own networks. When used in conjunction with traditional media sources, social media works best. Twitter, for example, is a fast and direct means of communication to media outlets and reporters, who can then spread and share timely information with their expansive networks. Instead of writing a full-blown press release and sending out to traditional media sources and waiting to see if the story will be picked up, a quick tweet with useful information can be immediately shared and directly spread to thousands.
A recent example has been with sharing critical information regarding this year’s flu season. In Hidalgo County, there have been multiple deaths related to influenza and H1N1. Over the Christmas holiday this was a major news story, and our officials were constantly being bombarded with requests for updates and information. We decided to hold a press conference on Jan. 2 to update the media, and thereby, the public, on the latest news and updates.
Hidalgo County’s message was to urge prevention among residents – get the flu shot and follow the four C’s (cover cough, clean and wash hands, contain yourself – stay home if sick, and consult a physician). Officials also stressed that while the deaths are tragic, statistics show that the number falls within the average range of influenza deaths each year.
We had an excellent turnout from our local television and print media outlets, and we asked them for their assistance in relaying the county’s message of prevention. At the same time, we took advantage of social media to immediately share the information; we shared an image on our Facebook page regarding the information that was disseminated at the press conference.
We asked residents to also help share the message, and we had a very positive response: Over 2,641 people saw the post, 54 liked it, and 21 shared it with their own networks.
From the County Judge’s perspective:
“One of our administration’s primary missions is to increase transparency, visibility and presence among our constituents,” remarked County Judge Ramon Garcia. “We have a responsibility to our residents to demonstrate what we are doing as leaders to serve them and provide the highest quality of government services to them, while at the same time being mindful and resourceful stewards of the county taxpayer’s dollars,” Garcia continued.
“Social media has been a valuable tool that allows us to engage citizens in a new way while promoting our county efforts, positive news, and critical information in a direct manner and at minimal cost,” he added. H