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Voices. Knowledge. Solutions.

Engaging Residents With Every Tool Available

Cities might be the level of government with the most impact on residents’ lives, but getting those residents to pay attention to the government’s messages can be challenging. A panel of city and town officials joined the Municipal Association of SC Communications Workshop in November to discuss how they find ways to connect with residents and businesses. 

Community engagement panel
Municipal Association Uptown Editor Russell Cox, left, discusses resident engagement with Lara Hudson, former community development director who now handles human resources; Edisto Beach Town Administrator Mark Aakhus; and Goose Creek Marketing, Branding and Design Assistant Adam Kelly.

In the Town of Edisto Beach, the council decided to mostly eliminate social media as a communication format that wasn’t working for the community. But as Town Administrator Mark Aakhus described, the town’s monthly e-newsletter has done a good job for resident communication.  

“It works, it engages residents,” he said. “We have 1,300 people subscribed to get these emails, and that’s more people than we have in a permanent population.” 

When the town pursued a Master Recreation Plan, it engaged the community heavily to receive as much input as possible, using everything from focus groups to a multi-day open house workshop. This level of collaboration won the town a 2022 Achievement Award from the Municipal Association. Drawing residents into the planning process, Aakhus said, helps municipalities secure grants to fund master plan recommendations, since it demonstrates community buy-in.

“This was a fun topic — parks, recreation,” he said. “People were excited, they came, they showed up. We’re constantly doing public workshops because people come to them. Every year we do a hurricane [preparedness] workshop.” 

In the City of Greenwood, Lara Hudson has handled many kinds of communication. She has worked as the Uptown manager, facilitating the needs of Greenwood’s central “Uptown” business district, as well as community development director. Hudson has been involved in everything from newsletters to social media to news media interviews, to say nothing of regular face-to-face communication with businesses and stakeholders. 

Hudson stressed the attention-catching importance of creating compelling visual materials for things like special events — the photos and well-designed graphics that can be used in social media and other publications.

“We really invested in photography, I think that’s one of the best things you can invest in. People want to see themselves, they want to see their kids,” she said. 

She called attention to software like Photoshop and Canva to refine images and design visually appealing materials.

“Anybody can use Canva. I think a really good-quality graphic is definitely going to grab people’s attention,” she said.

The City of Goose Creek handles communication using a public information officer, Frank Johnson, but it also uses Adam Kelly as a marketing, branding and design assistant. Kelly has found many inventive ways to create social media, video and other content that borrows from memes, or late-breaking internet trends.

His ideas, Kelly said, often come from a careful watch of media trends in general, and what other cities are doing. For example, the well-received “Your Week in the Creek” videos, produced in the style of television news, is not entirely dissimilar to the City of Greenville’s “Week in Review” videos. Kelly has found new takes on the idea, however — an April Fools' Day edition of the videos alleged that the City of Goose Creek’s name was to change to the “City of Duck Ditch.” 

“I’m always following different municipalities and seeing what they’re doing, regardless of if they have a team of 100,” Kelly said. “There's always something that you can glean from that and turn it into content for your page.” 

Upon his hiring, Kelly said, City Administrator Natalie Zeigler asked him to “make Goose Creek cool.” Its communications have since used brand-new ways to show off park projects, events and city services. As for whether it’s been enough to make the city “cool,” Kelly pointed to a recent social media comment — “Kicking myself again for selling my Goose Creek house in 2019.”