The City of Edmonton’s Social Media Advisory Committee

In the grand scheme of things, the City of Edmonton could be considered an early adopter of social media tools. They’ve been on Twitter since February 5, 2009 and have established a presence on Facebook, YouTube, and other sites. While most organizations are still unsure about how to get started with social media, the City of Edmonton is slowly but surely gaining expertise.

Recently I learned that the City established a Social Media Advisory Committee (SMAC) in the spring of this year. I asked Jason Darrah, Communications Business Partner at the City of Edmonton, to tell me more about it. He started by explaining how the committee came to be. I’m paraphrasing here:

In the early days, the City was a fairly simple system. The roads people worried about roads, and the sewer people looked after the sewer system. These were silos, but it worked fine. When a new way of dealing with the world appeared, each silo handled the changes on its own. So at some point in the City’s history, Transportation handled all media related to Transportation, and Waste Management handled all media related to Waste Management. Eventually, it became clear that economies of scale and a unified voice could be achieved by creating the Communications department. More importantly, the Communications department could use its experience to help each of the silos be more effective than they could be individually.

The SMAC followed a similar trajectory. The difference is that today, the City is a complex system. We still have silos, but a change in one area quite often has an impact in another. I think that’s the reason that the SMAC was created so quickly. Jason and his colleagues in Communications recognized some of the advantages:

  • The committee can act as a resource for each of the silos. So when a department wants to get started, they know where to go to learn.
  • They can also provide operational support, actually doing some of the social media work.
  • It’s a way of managing risk, by establishing a competency.
  • The committee is a way of distributing knowledge. They gather information about all of the different social media projects taking place, and can offer advice based on experience.

That last point is particularly important. The SMAC is an advisory committee. Unlike many City committees, whose members are designated by senior managers, the SMAC is comprised of 26 individuals with social media experience (as you can imagine, many of them are young). It has grown fairly organically by attracting people who are using the tools. At their first meeting in May, the SMAC members simply talked about what they knew and had experience with (and they have since recognized a few gaps, Legal for instance).

The key for SMAC is to avoid becoming the social media police. If a department or group wants to do something with social media, they might have a representative on the SMAC, or they would reach out to one. They’d make a pitch to the committee not for approval, but for knowledge. The SMAC might share information about similar projects, or it might make recommendations for tools to use, but it doesn’t say no. The other characteristic that’s interesting is the pull model – SMAC waits for people or groups to come to it, rather than proactively preaching. Obviously some projects will happen without SMAC’s knowledge, but that’s okay.

I really love the SMAC approach. I talk with a number of local organizations about using social media, and I often wonder why they want to learn from me. Obviously I think I have something to offer, and I usually do it for free, but I have always felt that most organizations have untapped knowledge and experience within. By getting all of the individuals with social media experience together, the City has recognized that and has created a fantastic resource for all other employees. I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that although SMAC was started by Communications, it exists outside of it. Kudos to Jason and his colleagues for embracing the notion than social media is something different.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Social Media Advisory Committee will play an integral role in helping the City of Edmonton use social media effectively, and I believe it’s a model that other organizations should look at adopting also.

Somewhat related…

While social media is different than other communications tools, some of the same rules still apply. The City of Edmonton (and SMAC) is currently drafting a set of Social Media Guidelines, to help employees use the tools effectively. Note this is not a policy, because there are three policies already in place that cover employee conduct with social media tools and everything else: the Employee Code of Conduct, the Media Relations Policy, and the Conduct and Acceptable use of Telecommunication Technology policy. The other advantage to having guidelines rather than a policy is that guidelines are easier to update, which is important when you’re dealing with something that changes as quickly as social media.