Telling Your Story 140 Characters at a Time: How Topeka Uses Tweet-a-Longs

ARTICLE | Oct 11, 2016

The services cities provide – clean water, reliable sewer systems, drivable streets – aren’t often thought about until there is a problem. But City employees still come to work every day, regardless of whether anyone notices. It’s time we introduce those services, and the employees who provide them, to our residents.

That’s where tweet-a-longs come in.

A tweet-a-long involves accompanying an employee or crew on a scheduled job for about two hours, capturing video, pictures and information and sending it out to followers on Twitter as it’s happening. When the time is up, you can compile the tweets in a blog – is an easy one – and share the blog on other social media and internally, so those without Twitter can join in on the fun. Tweet-a-longs need to be done regularly, whether it’s once a week or once a month so people know to expect them. Tying them to news works even better – like following a forestry crew clearing debris after a major storm.

Topeka started tweet-a-longs in Topeka the summer of 2015, after Aly Van Dyke started as the City’s media relations director. She was challenged to find new and better ways of telling City's story. Tweet-a-longs combine the relevance and popularity of social media with the stories people weren’t hearing about the City – the people working behind the scenes every day to make sure critical services aren’t interrupted.

“I covered local government for the newspaper here, and I always wanted more access to people I didn’t see at Council meetings,” Van Dyke said. “Tweet-a-longs have helped introduce those people to media and the public. Now, when I see a complaint come across our social media accounts, I usually have a tweet-a-long I can send to educate them about the service, and introduce them to those who provide it. That usually helps calm things down.”

Listen to our interview with Topeka's Media Relations Director Aly Van Dyke:

The tweet-a-longs give Topeka residents a first-hand view into the work City employees do for them daily that they might not otherwise see or interact with -- like the sewer-line camera crew, water meter readers and pothole patch teams. It allows them to meet City employees, learn about their jobs and personalities and ask them questions.

In so doing, tweet-a-longs have broadened citizens’ perception of the work we do as a City. Normally, residents hear from the City only during Council meetings, when they mostly learn about budget figures and big-picture policy discussions. With tweet-a-longs, our residents are able to see how our staff is working for them, every day, out in the community. They can put faces and names to the services their tax dollars pay for.

“One of my favorite stories is from our tweet-a-long with the Topeka Zoo’s horticulturist, Rick Knight,” Van Dyke said. “Twitter was incredibly engaged in the tweet-a-long, even asking him for a selfie (a term he hadn’t heard before). A few days later, one of our followers recognized Knight from the tweet-a-long. She took a selfie with him and posted it on her social media. That was a really special moment.”

Tweet-a-longs also have helped grow the City’s following on social media. Since the initiative started, the City has picked up hundreds of followers on Twitter, Facebook and NextDoor. That means more eyes on the news the City sends out and more interaction on various social media platforms, even outside of the tweet-a-longs.

Each blog post about tweet-a-longs has hundreds of views, some reaching into the thousands. Those figures don’t account for people reading the blog information on Twitter, Nextdoor or Facebook, so the reach is much higher. With more than 6,000 followers each on Facebook and Twitter, that readership is impressive, especially considering Topeka relies only on its own social media platforms to promote the tweet-a-longs.

“Each view is another Topeka resident we have reached with our story, unfiltered through media, about individuals who love serving their community, but who typically don't get the recognition from the public they deserve,” Van Dyke said.

Although the benefits to citizen engagement are great, tweet-a-longs have had an even greater effect on Topeka’s employees. They have been a significant morale booster for staff, particularly those who have been featured in the tweet-a-longs. Staff members now are coming up with different ideas for tweet-a-longs to get their departments and coworkers more exposure, and other employees – in addition to Topeka residents -- are getting to know some of the public servants by name and occupation.

“I didn’t quite know the effect the tweet-a-longs were having on employees until I went around with one of our parking services managers,” Van Dyke said. “When we finished up, she said, ‘I’ve worked here 28 years, and no one has ever asked me about my job.’ In that moment, I realized the tweet-a-longs were more about the employees than telling the City’s story.”

Starting the program can be challenging if upper management doesn’t understand or appreciate the importance of social media. Management also might be hesitant to allow unfettered access to employees who typically don’t have contact with the public or media. It is important to establish grounds rules with department directors prior to scheduling a tweet-a-long. You want the tweet-a-long to be as organic as possible – the best tweet-a-longs come from letting employees be themselves – but that doesn’t mean it won’t have some limits. In Topeka, having trust in one another, that everyone has the City’s best interest in mind, helped overcome some of these roadblocks.

The bigger obstacle usually is finding time to do it. The good news: It doesn’t take much. The tweet-a-long itself takes just two hours. Adding it to a blog can take anywhere from five minutes to an hour. Ideally, you’re following a crew on a scheduled task, so it shouldn’t interrupt workflow wither. Van Dyke made it a priority, and fits these in about every week, regardless of other news events happening. She keeps her cell phone on her, just in case. Tweet-a-longs are time well spent for this organization, and she makes sure it happens regardless of her schedule.

Tweet-A-Longs are a creative, entertaining way to engage your residents and employees. The initiative engenders pride in and for local government. It has benefits both in the community and internally at the City. With its low cost and ease of implementation, it can and should be replicated in agencies across the country. If you're looking for a way to grow social media followers, to tell your own stories and show the members of your public the good you do, Tweet-A-Longs are an easy, inexpensive and fun way to do it.

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