Connecting in the digital age: Fort Mill, Tega Cay reaching out

City leaders have different ideas on the role social media plays in local government, a hot topic of the campaigns for City Council seats last year.

Katie Poulsen, assistant manager for Tega Cay, said social media has increasingly become a way for residents to stay informed. She handles the city’s communications, including its website and social media presence.

“We find many residents who have never reached out to City Hall or attended a Council meeting will comment on what is happening in the City via Facebook or Twitter,” she said. “It is easy to do as it is at their fingertips and requires minimal time.”

The city has more than 3,000 likes on its Facebook page, with the posts reaching anywhere from 2,000 to 40,000 people, Poulsen said. The city also has more than 1,200 Twitter followers.

“The ability to quickly reach a group of that size is why so many local governments have turned to social media as a communication avenue,” she said.

Tega Cay Mayor George Sheppard uses the city’s certified Facebook page, website and other tools, in addition to his own Facebook and Twitter accounts, to keep in touch with constituents.

“Social media is the way people seem to communicate these days,” he said.

Poulsen said the city mainly uses social media to keep residents informed of upcoming Council meetings and share information on projects and special events. However, if residents have specific concerns, Poulsen said the city tries to respond directly to that resident or post a comment if the issue interests the general population.

“We do our best to monitor questions and comments as they are posted and strive to respond to the individual, or as a public comment, within the same day at most,” she said.

However, City Manager Charlie Funderburk said no one monitors the city’s social media full-time, making it less than ideal for two-way communication between city officials and residents.

“Our social media platform is a way for us to share information with them,” he said.

Funderburk said residents should instead use email, phone calls and inquiry features on the city’s website for timely responses to their questions.

One local expert believes that isn’t the right approach.

Local leaders should use social media as an interaction tool, said Mark Herring, author of “Social Media and the Good Life: Do They Connect?”

“Politicians have to understand that social media constitutes their constituents,” he said.

“Council members and government officials who are not paying attention to social media are going to be blindsided by it.”

Herring said elected officials and municipal employees need to look at who is commenting and asking questions on social media, even if it’s not always people from their community or jurisdiction. He said it’s important for them to understand where the posts originate and address any concerns affecting their constituency.

Tega Cay City Councilman David O’Neal said in his experience, residents use social media more than e-mail or the city’s website. He said he enjoys seeing residents’ reactions to discussions he shares from city council meetings on Facebook.

“I just get it started and they take over,” he said. “Its instant feedback.”

Tega Cay resident Benn Ullman, who started the Tega Cay Talk Facebook page and Twitter account, said he likes to see O’Neal share updates from City Council and that he actually solicits residents’ feedback.

“I wish more city officials would do so, but I understand it can be a challenge when many people are upset about certain issues and have a hard time maintaining a civil discussion,” he said.

O’Neal said he considers residents’ comments on social media on his actions as a council member and often brings them up during council discussions.

“We live in the social media era,” he said. “It’s one of the better tools we can use.”

The council member said that while he doesn’t post on city issues using his personal Facebook page, he does post on various Facebook pages, such as The Tega Cay Bulletin Board, on housing developments and other issues the council has discussed.

“It’s a good way to get my message out, but more importantly it’s a way for me to hear what the populace wants,” he said. “It works for me, that’s why I use it.”

Fort Mill and Facebook

Fort Mill mayor Guynn Savage said she also reads Facebook comments related to her town’s issues. The Town of Fort Mill has more than 3,000 followers on Facebook and more than 2,600 on Twitter.

“Comments from social media, as well as those given at meetings, emailed or called in, are taken into consideration as the council and administration work through issues and policies,” she said.

Social media is going to continue to be the way many people get their information and voice their opinions, something that local town and city leaders need to get on board with, Herring said.

“This way every man or woman can make him or herself heard and government officials that don’t pay attention to that are simply either going to lose their jobs or going to be blindsided by something that happens,” he said.

“This is essentially bringing the town hall or meeting to everybody’s home and they can have their own voice.”

By Amanda Harris, Staff Reporter with The Fort Mill Times