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Social Media for Public Parks and Recreation Organizations: Bridging the Communication Gap

This article is part of a Special Section on Web 2.0 and Social Media that ran in the Summer issue of PA TIMES. See the end of this article for links to others from the Special Section.

Steven N. Waller

A 2009 report released by Strategy Analytics estimates that there are nearly 400 million people using social media globally and in five years one out of every six people on the face of the earth will be using social media. User generated media will increasingly compete with professional media when it comes to the attention and free time of users. If public parks and recreation organizations embrace social media applications it will enable a more direct and positive relationship with consumers, which will in turn drive increased engagement and loyalty.

If the report’s estimates are proven to be reliable, it poses some interesting questions. Will there be more social media channels available? Will blogs continue to grow? What about podcasts? If there are three times as many social media users in five years, then there will no doubt be much more content being created. How will we cope? What will be our filters? Will there still be a MySpace? Facebook? Twitter? Then again, it seems hard enough to predict what the social media landscape will look like five months from now, much less five years from now.

Social networking is about being accessible and transparent. It should be viewed as a customer service tool just as much as it is viewed as a marketing tool. As a customer service tool, it requires commitment to interact with and respond to users.

Social Media and Agency Websites
The use of social media does not negate the need for departments to neglect their website. Some departments may feel locked into using their municipal website or feel unable to invest in a new site. In addition, social media provides a variety of the features (easy to update and share information, posting photos, video, starting discussions) that their websites lack. While this is good, consumers need to be directed to the site or department office to consume services. The critical question becomes whether people are urged to interact outside of your site rather than directing them to it? What happens if you’ve been relying on Facebook or Twitter for the majority of your online advertising and one or the other is no longer the social media “flavor of the day” ? Social networks are customer service and marketing tools. They should not be the anchor of a department’s online presence. Ultimately, your website is the most stable communication tool the agency owns and social media should be used in tandem with the website for effective communication and marketing.

Blogging
Why get involved with blogging instead of maintaining a conventional static site? While using social media is not always the right choice, it does help to spur a dialogue between the organization its customer base, which inevitably helps the agency to stay more engaged with the public or particular constituent groups. By interacting with an audience, you not only build a community, you demonstrate that you have taken an active role in the well-being of that community. This can be especially valuable for agencies and organizations that struggle with community awareness, civic engagement, and a favorable public image.

Additionally, blogging helps to increase brand awareness. Creating a blog or engaging in other forms of social media gives the organization a way to respond when something newsworthy or controversial happens in your area. Having a tool that allows you to provide rapid responses to news and rumors is becoming increasingly valuable–especially as customers rely more and more on social media themselves.

Common Social Media Forms Used by Parks and Recreation Agencies
There are a host of social media tools used by governmental agencies that may include the following:

Blogging: Blogger, WordPress

Micro-Blogs: Twitter (140 characters or less), Tumblr

Social Networks: LinkedIn (business/professional); Facebook (friends/contacts/business fan pages); Recreation 2.0 (a collaborative social network for parks and recreation professionals)

Business Communication: Skype; Google Voice; Google Wave

Digital Video: YouTube, Vimeo

Bookmarking: Digg; Delicious; Stumble Upon

Photo Sharing: Flickr; Photobucket

Presentation Sharing: Slideshare, Scribd

Wikis: Wikipedia; Wikispaces

In combination these social tools create a powerful for arsenal for conveying public information, policy and programmatic changes, and linking people together with programs sponsored by the parks and recreation department.

Effectively Managing Social Media Use
Withstanding how rapidly social media tools change and the frequency of their use, to avert potential communications problems an organizational policy may be necessary, especially for larger departments. For example, the New York City Parks and Recreation developed the policy featured below to govern the use of social media by its employees.

The New York City Department of Parks & Recreation shares information, images, and video with the public through blogs on its website and through external websites including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube. Comments by the public made to these accounts are reviewed and, while they will not be edited by Parks or its staff, may be deleted if found to be in violation of this comment policy.

• Comments should be limited to comments related to the posted topic. Parks’ social media accounts are not the proper place to express opinions or beliefs not directly related to that topic.

• The use of vulgar, offensive, threatening, or harassing language is prohibited.

• Personal attacks of any kind or offensive comments that target or disparage any ethnic, racial, age, or religious group, gender, sexual orientation, or disability status are prohibited.

• Parks’ social media accounts are not open to comments promoting or opposing any person campaigning for election to a political office, or promotion or advertisement of a business or commercial transaction.

• Comments advocating illegal activity or violating copyrights or trademarks are prohibited.

• This comment policy is subject to amendment or modification at any time.

A policy similar to New York City’s will assist in managing social media use and control abuse. A well crafted policy will also help agencies avert potential legal challenges stemming from the inappropriate use of social media.

Setting the Stage for the Future
Futurist Jim Carroll speaking of the future use of social media by parks and recreation agencies at the 2009 National Recreation and Parks Association Congress stated, “the world that we are headed for will be far more interactive…The next generation will expect to interact with us in completely different ways. When we are thinking recreation and the future, we have to be thinking about interactivity.”

The use of social media to promote location intelligence will be pivotal. It can be used as a virtual trail map or tour guide, it can give users data about the distance, elevation, or speed of their walk. Location intelligence will be important in providing the interactivity needed to get people off the couch and into our parks. An expanded version of the location intelligence people currently have creates “augmented reality.”

Augmented reality is the merging of a real world environment with a virtual one. It is the combination of computer data or imagery with your view of the real world. With advances in technology, particularly mobile technology, augmented reality is becoming more prevalent in some very interesting ways. One growing trend is the use of mobile devices to “layer” information over the real world environment. You view your surroundings through your mobile devices screen. Your device knows your exact location and layers data that pertains to your surroundings on the screen. This could be used to point out nearby parks, swimming pools, greenways and trails as well showing home values, transportation lines, social network information from nearby people, historical information, etc.

Social Media and Augmented Reality in Parks and Recreation?
Some reasonable applications for the integration of social media and augmented reality include:

• Park and Trail Maps

• Fitness/Walking Trails that provide video or textual instruction on exercises at each station. Users even could select from a variety of workout types–when the information is digital it is much cheaper/easier to change and update.

• Display facility hours/rules for buildings and fields throughout the park.

• Facility rental information overlay–shows availability and allows users to click to rent/reserve a field/facility.

• Ballfields could display schedules of upcoming games and even show summaries of games from earlier in the week.

• Advertise/promote events in the parks.

• In a building: hold phone up to a room entrance to view list of classes/courses offered and schedules.

The use of social media makes business personal again, catalyzes word of mouth marketing, promotes viral growth and creates opportunities for potential customers to discover the organization’s your goods and services. Municipal parks and recreation agencies can benefit greatly from its use. The effective use of social media is today’s reality for municipal parks and recreation organizations but also represents the future.

In our midst, there is a generation that doesn’t recall life without a computer. They are the first generation to grow up with computers in their homes and schools. The majority had cell phones before they began college and witnessed the advent of texting, blogging, virtual reality and joining social networks. This consumer group pays taxes and consumes municipal services. They expect government to be responsive and parks and recreation departments must be ready for them. Communicating effectively and timely is vital. They want to get a text message or twitter update about a program and register their kid with a couple of clicks on their iphone…all without having to roll out of bed. The questions becomes, are parks and recreation agencies ready for them?

ASPA member Steven N. Waller is an assistant professor in the recreation and leisure studies program, department of exercise, sport & leisure studies at The University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Email: [email protected]

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One Response to Social Media for Public Parks and Recreation Organizations: Bridging the Communication Gap

  1. Pingback: Playing with Social Media | Laugh, Learn, N' Play

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