If there’s one thing we can take away from President Obama’s landslide victory in the last U.S. presidential election, it’s that reaching out to, and empowering, citizens via digital means — be it through social media, email marketing or text messages — is imperative to the success of any modern political campaign.
Taking a page out of Obama’s books, on Nov. 17, 2011, two days before the Vancouver civic elections took place, Mayor Gregor Robertson and his team hosted a virtual town hall meeting out of the Hootsuite office where they encouraged the people of Vancouver to #askgregor their most pressing questions. A few days later, the results were announced: Mayor Gregor and the Vision Vancouver team won the hearts, and votes, of Vancouverites.
We caught up with Kevin Quinlan, Director of Policy and Communications for the City of Vancouver, to find out more about how that inaugural digital town hall meeting came to fruition and how other government officials can leverage the web to stay in touch with their communities.
Kevin Quinlan has a BA in political science from UBC and a Masters in Urban Studies from SFU. He likes things to do with cities and ’90s pop culture.
What inspired the idea for the first HootSuite Town Hall?
The idea of a Twitter town hall has been used by a number of politicians. Probably the most famous one was with President Obama, but others like Mayor Bloomberg in New York have done them as well. We know that most people don’t pay attention to a civic election campaign until the week before, so we decided to do it with just a few days left before the election in November. Gregor has about 20,000 followers so we thought it was a good way to talk to them directly, as well as the Twitter community at large, during the campaign. We approached the Hootsuite team, located in Vancouver in Railtown, and they really liked the idea and offered to host us in their office.
Was there a strategy around dealing with public criticism/scrutiny in real time?
By the time we held the Twitter town hall, we had been in an election campaign for more than six weeks, so we knew what the likely criticisms would be. We prepared a list of likely questions and compiled links to reports, releases or statements addressing them, so that we’d have them on hand. Our team agreed early on that we wanted to address any Twitter attacks in the town hall, not ignore them, because otherwise it would just be pretty boring and Robertson would be accused of dodging questions.
In your opinion, what are some best practices when it comes to government, or government officials, leveraging social media?
An actual dialogue, as opposed to one-way information, is by far the best practice when it comes to government using social media. It’s easy to create a Facebook page or a Twitter account and post information, but it takes effort to respond to people who want an answer or are seeking feedback. It’s something we’re trying to do more of in our office, but it is time consuming and there’s always competing demands on staff.
Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, New Jersey is probably the best politician I’ve seen on social media. My favorite was when a guy tweeted to him that his street wasn’t snowplowed, and Mayor Booker tweeted back a bit later that he was standing outside with a shovel and told him to come outside.
Are there any other digital-savvy projects currently underway at City Hall?
Council has approved the creation of an online apartment standards database, where we’d post by-law violations in an open source format and the public can search by building or owner. The idea came from a similar site they have in New York City, where they have a Landlord Watchlist. We included it in the Mayor’s campaign platform last fall and it got a really good response. Staff are also really excited about putting it together, and we’re aiming to have something to announce in about two to three months.
How was the initial HootSuite Town Hall received by the community and will there be another?
Our experience was very positive. There was a lot of feedback from people saying they appreciated the Mayor taking the time to answer questions on Twitter, and #askgregor was trending nationally. We’re working on setting up another one.
In the meantime, here’s where you can catch up with Mayor Gregor Robertson and the city hall staff online:
The mayor’s personal account: @mayorgregor
The mayor’s office official account: @vanmayorsoffice
My twitter – a mix of city hall stuff and random ’90s pop culture: @kq_vancity