Growing Engagement: #proudlydekalb Brings Community Together

ARTICLE | Nov 9, 2015
Photo Courtesy of ProudlyDeKalb Facebook

In each month’s Transformations, we will highlight an article that includes a focus on one or more of the 44 trends from our Next Big Things report. The following article from DeKalb shows a strong emphasis on Citizen Engagement. What trends are you seeing in your community? Let us know!

Walk around downtown DeKalb, Illinois, and you’ll no doubt see signs, stickers and other gear boasting a #proudlydekalb hashtag.

Head into a local meeting or a Northern Illinois University football game and you might see the same sign, as well as some t-shirts with the same slogan. Log onto Facebook or Instagram, and that’s where the hashtag really demonstrates its popularity.

The City of DeKalb tags #proudlydekalb on a post about fire safety week activities at the Fire Department. A local animal shelter is #proudlydekalb for being featured in the newspaper and students from DeKalb High School share #proudlydekalb on their pictures from homecoming.

#proudlydekalb is simple: a way for community members to share their good news and positive energy in DeKalb.

Like other viral campaigns, it started small and has grown over the past several months. What’s unique about #proudlydekalb, though, is its origin. #proudlydekalb didn’t stem from a single agency or group in the community. Promotion of #proudlydekalb is a collaborative effort from a group of community leaders who met first in early 2015 to address the need for a unified public relations message.

Egyptian Theatre Executive Director Alex Nerad said the group’s discussions evolved organically, with everyone asking the same question: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could all work together to promote all these great things we have that no one is really talking about?”

Nerad has been involved with #proudlydekalb since the beginning and contributes hours of time and energy to its promotion.

At its start, the community leaders group included members from the City, Chamber of Commerce, School, Park, and Library Districts, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the County Economic Development Corporation, the local hospital, and several businesses/nonprofits in DeKalb.

“Engaging different municipal organizations is critical in social media initiatives as it helps simplify the communications channels for the citizens”, commented Spencer Stern, President of Stern Consulting, and AFI partner. At the very least, the group wanted to ensure members were aware of others’ marketing efforts. They met to discuss image challenges and media strategies. Initial meetings weren’t set with an end goal in mind, but brainstorming and the desire for a cohesive message resulted in the #proudlydekalb initiative.

Although the branding concept isn’t unique to DeKalb, the success of the campaign is attributed to the multi-agency partnership and ownership structure that doesn’t rely on one office for promotion or support.  

“Some local agencies have tapped into their communities to collect ideas on branding as well as to implement specific tactics. They have engaged them by using social media as well community-based  focus groups,” said Stern.

Its broadness is what has made it successful so far. It isn’t meant to promote any single group or entity, which can lead to polarization or competition. Instead, it’s a way to illustrate a hard-to-capture concept that many say is overdue for DeKalb: community pride.

“We were all realizing that…whenever people [outside the community] were hearing about DeKalb, it was the rare occasion that there was a negative issue in the community,” Nerad said, referencing remarks in the large market, mainstream media. “There were so many positive things going on, but that message wasn’t really getting out there. We needed an advocate for those things.”

Nerad said the key to the success of the initiative so far is the “cooperative community stakeholders.”

It works against the traditional silo effect that many local agencies struggle to overcome. Representatives are proud to say they are truly working together to promote the message, instead of merely being aware of the efforts of others.

While its presence on social media might be the most traditional outlet for the campaign, #proudlydekalb has prompted a mindset shift for many community leaders.

At City Hall, #proudlydekalb is a regular item on the City Council meeting agendas. City employees make a point to choose success stories and accomplishments to showcase great work that has been done. It has encouraged staff to consider all activities in progress and whether they are truly #proudlydekalb worthy. If staff is worried that the projects aren’t going to elicit a positive response from the community, they work actively to communicate the projects in a positive way. This better understanding of local district activities might not be a direct intended result of #proudlydekalb, but it helps create a community where local agencies understand what makes community members happy and vice versa.

Although measurable elements of the initiative are still being determined, #proudlydekalb’s influence has been concreted in at least one community activity: DeKalb’s application to the America’s Best Communities nationwide grant program.

“When compared to traditional outreach programs, those involving social media are much easier to measure the impact. However, Stern cautions that establishing too many performance metrics can get the social media team spending too much time tracking and analyzing metrics instead  of focusing on the content and messaging. Keeping track of 5-7 metrics should be an acceptable amount.

The ABC grant application process, which was initiated by the City of DeKalb and now includes a number of community stakeholders, has relied on #proudlydekalb to showcase community assets and serve as its formal marketing and branding component. Stakeholders from a variety of agencies are involved in both #proudlydekalb and the ABC grant process, and the formal and informal overlap has served both initiatives well.

When it comes to the future of #proudlydekalb, stakeholders and early adopters recognize that its grassroots and somewhat informal nature are what have brought so much success. Because #proudlydekalb is basically brand new, the initiative has yet to be formalized with an intergovernmental agreement or exploration of options for sustainability.

Nerad said although the initiative has had initial success as a grassroots concept, the group has had preliminary discussions about the future of #proudlydekalb.

“We have asked ourselves ‘Does this group turn into a formal organization and get a staff member?’” Nerad said.

Formalized interagency marketing models exist, of course, at varying levels of integration and partnership. In Chicagoland, the Regional Transportation Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority, the Metra commuter rail system and the Pace Suburban Bus Service teamed up in early 2015 to launch a marketing campaign to encourage public transportation use. “Ride On” reminds users of the conveniences of public transit with a memorable slogan.

In Waunakee, Wisconsin, agencies such as the Village, the Chamber of Commerce and the School District have joined together for a unified online presence. Community members and other customers can access a full community Website with unified branding and imagery.

While those models might provide framework for a more formalized process, stakeholders and community leaders in DeKalb are happy for now to witness the spontaneous growth and natural progression of #proudlydekalb.

Although formalization might allow for future expansion and growth, the hashtag’s humble roots show how simple things—like a memorable slogan and a community to be proud of—can provoke a powerful movement and successful collaboration.  

“Our limited resources pooled together can hopefully do good for everybody,” Nerad said. “It’s as if the community was waiting around for something like this to come around.”

Visit Proudly DeKalb or their Facebook page to see more.

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