June 24, 2011

Tech shifts how city gets the word out

Published June 24, 2011
Getting the word out today involves more than a press
release, says Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall, who says
the city must look at multiple information platforms,
such as the Internet, as well as traditional media.
(Image by Stock.xchng vi)
First of two
By Ted Schnell • BocaJump
The explosive growth of new media over the past 15 years has seen a correspondingly dramatic shift in the way people gather and share information – even how they communicate individually with each other.

“You can never communicate enough,” City Manager Sean Stegall said Wednesday afternoon.
“I’ve shared this with others, and they’ve agreed with me, that when we make mistakes, or if things don’t go as well as they could have gone, overwhelmingly, the reason is that we did not communicate well enough … and communication is always an underserved value – you can’t over-communicate. It’s impossible.”

Stegall’s view on communication underpins the city’s strategy to diversify its efforts to communicate with and engage Elgin residents.

As online news sites like BocaJump grow in popularity, more traditional media grapple with sagging revenues and dwindling readership. Online growth continues to mushroom with the proliferation of mobile technology, whether smartphones or tablets, that cut a computer user’s tether to a desk or home office. Now they can access that information 24/7 while walking in the park, talking on a phone, riding a train, dining – even while stopping for a mug of that special brew at the local coffee house.

Developers are even writing application – or apps – for these devices to alert consumers instantly to even specific information for which they want updates: stock prices, commodities values, new movies, news from Iraq, news at home.

The desire for instant access to information and the means for delivering it have mushroomed.

Using his own tenure with the city of Elgin for comparison, Stegall said the change has been rapid and radical.

“When I came here, all we really needed to do just 11 years ago was to have relationships – we’d have press releases, and it was all about newspapers, and then some trade publications and those things,” Stegall said. “But the public opinion was driven by columns in the Sunday paper – everything revolved around the print media.

“We’re at the point now where the majority of the press releases we used to do, we stopped doing, because it’s not (any longer) really necessary to do a traditional press release,” he continued. “I think the newspaper still certainly plays a role.”

But a lot can change over the course of a decade.

Email, which virtually has replaced traditional “snail mail,” is itself becoming old hat when compared to instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and other social media.

New ways are being developed or discovered constantly for using these diverse digital platforms to disseminate information quickly, efficiently and effectively.

Bottom line: There are more ways today to get the word out to people than there ever have been before.

“It’s about the idea that the mass customization of information doesn’t work any longer,” Stegall said. In other words, that one-size-fits-all press release written to newspaper, radio and television stations 11 years ago isn’t as effective on other platforms.

“It has to be segmented through a variety of means to reach different types of people, based on demographic changes, based on technology,” Stegall said. “So if the city wants to get a message out, it still has to” rely on more traditional media, but it also must expand into digital arenas.

Stegall used the city’s newsletter as an example. Senior citizens, he said, still may want the printed product – the hard copy, while some residents are content with an email. “The 20-somethings want to read it on Facebook, people in the middle still want to see it in the newspaper, but many of them also want to see it on Facebook,” Stegall said. “So we really have to cover all the different angles, and we have to generate much of the information ourselves. So you really need to have a multifaceted approach.”

Recognizing the shifting trend is part of developing that approach.

In March, Mashable.com reported that in late 2010, for the first time more people were getting their news online than from newspapers, and that more ad dollars went to online outlets than to newspapers.

But another aspect of new media is that users can “friend” and “unfriend,” “like” and “unlike,” “follow” and “unfollow.”

“People want their information instantly, and they want it customized to them, and it needs to be more personal,” Stegall said.

In that regard, the city has its own website the administration feels is in need of a massive overhaul to make it more user-friendly.

“It has a lot of information, but it still is not easy to use,” he said. “But we’re making much more inroads into social media.

Perhaps that was never more readily than in early February, when blizzard conditions swept across the United States, blanketing state after state in near-record or records snowfalls.

While residents largely heeded warnings to stay home, Elgin Public Works crews were out in force, pushing city snowplows hard as they struggled to remove what would prove to be nearly 20 inches of snow from Elgin’s streets.

Through it all, Elgin residents had access to nearly continual reports, thanks to Stegall’s combined use of smartphones and a tablet computer to post his observations about the city’s progress on Elgin’s website, on its Facebook page and to its Twitter account.

Stegall shrugs it off simply as using the necessary tools to communicate effectively with as many Elgin residents as possible. Communication, he reiterated, is essential to effective government. New media is an increasingly essential element in Elgin’s communication arsenal.

Using his iPhone as an example, Stegall said he has applications that send him news alerts and updates on other information that newspapers cannot provide.

But there are other aspects to getting the word out to residents. Stegall pointed out the city’s own relationship with BocaJump as an example.

“The reason the city wanted to get involved in that was because of the recognition that more and more people will continue to get information from places like BocaJump, and that’s only going to increase,” Stegall said. “And I think the analytics provided by BocaJump to us demonstrate that, and it’s based in fact. Frankly, I don’t think anyone argues with that.”

But BocaJump is not alone in capturing the city’s eye.