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Talk of the Town: Cities Reach Out to Residents, Visitors

​Whether it’s an employee or department dedicated to public information, a company contracted to post to social media or even a mayor updating the town’s website, many cities and towns are working to keep their residents informed.

That information can range from business openings to public safety and weather alerts. Online tools have created an expectation that information be available instantaneously, which has created challenges, but it has provided new opportunities as well. Communication offices — whether they are set up formally or develop in a more informal way — can help municipalities overcome communication challenges and build new connections.

“A great day in my job is feeling that I have communicated something to our community that they may not have known about the City of Newberry,” said Elyssa Haven, public relations coordinator for Newberry. “Having lived in Newberry all of my life, there are still times I learn something new about our community and I love having the platform to share that whether it be through a press release or on social media.”

Elyssa Haven is the public relations coordinator for the City of Newberry. 
Photo: City of Newberry.

Haven was a reporter for Newberry’s local newspaper before joining the city. She started writing press releases as part of her administrative assistant job before taking over communications full time in 2018. The newspaper often publishes Haven’s write-ups of city council meetings.
Haven also works with the city’s tourism staff to help promote events on the town’s website and in quarterly newsletters.

“Over the years, communication has become much faster than it used to be — not necessarily more than it used to be, but faster,” Haven said. “I think that social media and the internet has been a big part of driving that demand for quicker information.”

To that end, the city has joined with Newberry County to allow residents to opt in for an emergency text messages app. Residents can choose the information they want to receive by text, from weather and traffic to reminders about team sports and events.

For this information, Haven relies heavily on the police and fire departments, as well as the tourism and event staff.

“I can’t be everywhere,” she said. “We have a great team of people here at the city. I don’t ever feel like I’m doing it alone.”

In Elgin, Melissa Emmons first entered office as mayor with a goal of getting information to residents quickly. She is now in her second term, but has always worked to help the town communicate. She began by helping with content for a new town website several years ago and recently took over communications duties full-time. 

Elgin Mayor Melissa Emmons helps with many of the town’s communication efforts. Photo: Town of Elgin.

“It’s what the town needed,” Emmons said of her regular communications that include social media posts as well as website updates. “When I came on board, a lot of decisions were being made and [residents] would not find out about it until we read an article about it after the fact. My goal was to keep the community informed. If they are informed, they are going to be engaged.”

Emmons writes a monthly column for Elgin’s newspaper — typically, a recap of the monthly council meetings. She maintains the town’s website and also handles all social media posts. She has found that Facebook is the platform of choice for Elgin’s residents, and has also started tweeting town news as well.

“When I am home and there’s nothing going on, I will find a task,” she said. “I can post an upcoming event or I can post something on social media. It’s so easy today, you can do so much from a cell phone.”

As with other tourism-heavy communities, the Town of Hilton Head Island has visitors as a key audience for its communication as well as residents, and partnerships can help reach this group, whether it’s with the Chamber of Commerce or the island’s rental companies.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the town began sending enewsletter updates from the town manager, Communications Director Carolyn Grant said. The town sent these out daily, often with accompanying videos. Rental companies helped distribute key information from the town to visitors about the town’s mask ordinance and other precautions, and Grant said she sometimes receives questions from those who are traveling to the island.

Carolyn Grant, Hilton Head Island’s communications director, prepares for a ribbon 
cutting at Lowcountry Celebration Park. Photo: Town of Hilton Head Island.

Grant has a team with two other staff members to help with the website, social media, graphic design and video. On social media, issues like the mask ordinance have caused some to complain repeatedly. Even so, Grant said she has gotten traction with the audience by focusing on positive news — things like the Mayor’s Honored Islander Awards, a new park opening, or a Fire Rescue captain being deployed to Wisconsin to help with COVID-19 patients.

“When the public sees government in action, or sees that a project we’re working on will benefit the community as a whole, I think they appreciate getting that kind of news,” she said.

She encourages staff to send her news of their projects and efforts, reminding them that something as simple as filling potholes is valuable information, and that ongoing projects need ongoing updates.

“I always just tell them, if you give me a sliver, I can make a big slice out of it,” she said.

In the nearby Town of Port Royal, Shawn Hill from SK Signs, Designs & Marketing keeps the town’s audience updated through weekly newsletters and social media posts focusing on topics ranging from things to do in town to trash pickup changes. During the pandemic, Hill also has helped city council move its regular meetings to an online format.

After six years of maintaining the city’s social media channels and posting photo from its many festivals, Hill said he has an understanding of what news the city leaders want to highlight.

Shawn Hill, foreground, of SK Signs, Designs & Marketing, provides communication 
services for the Town of Port Royal. Photo: SK Signs, Designs & Marketing.

“They respect or appreciate our knowledge of social media and the fact that we know when the residents are on so we don’t blind post, we post it strategically,” Hill said. “For us, it’s more about the reach rather than engagement.”

He is able to share information across platforms that helps bring attention to the area as well as keep residents informed. Working with the town clerk, who writes press releases on town business, Hill distributes them to a wider audience through the weekly enewsletter.

Hill said that operating as a local business likely gave his company a boost when the town was looking for someone to help with its communications. He added that being a third-party vendor allows them to bring a fresh set of ideas for content.

Communications are a critical but often overlooked part of municipal governance. Cities and towns can find many ways to use available resources to communicate effectively, often by using creativity, flexibility and a willingness to connect with local talent.