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In the News: Rumor Has It: City Corrects Misinformation with Website, Social Channels

EFFICIENT GOV (by Mary Velan - October 5, 2015)

What Happened?
Glendale, California, is leveraging its municipal website to proactively combat rumors about local government events and actions. The city is then utilizing social media channels to put accurate information in front of audiences through convenient platforms.

Goal
Glendale, California, has experienced civic hostility and unrest as a result of misinformation shared online. Like many municipalities across the country, Glendale fell victim to the posting of inaccurate information that then incited an angry response from local residents and citizens in other communities. To squash the rumors in their tracks and put the conversation to rest, the city decided to create a Rumors Page that offers accurate information countering false statements being read by the public.

The Need
In an interview with EfficientGov, Tom Lorenz, Director of Communications and Community Relations in for the city of Glendale, discussed some of the incidents spurring the need for a Rumors Page.

“More often than not, local government is wrought with misinformation and dealing with the consequences of not making good, accurate information easily available to the public,” Lorenz explained. “Governments should host a website platform that posts the right information to serve the public and then use social media platforms to push that information to a greater number of people in a short period of time.”

The need for such swift, efficient communication became apparent during a previous election cycle when one candidate chose to campaign on an issue and spread false information. The candidate claimed Glendale was in debt and left 84 percent of its retirement unfunded, when in actuality the city boasted 84 percent of its pensions funded.

After sharing the correct numbers with the candidate and writing an op-ed piece in the local newspaper, Glendale still found residents responding to the initial statement with false information. Lorenz realized to get the right information in front of residents, it must be accessible and shared using popular, convenient channels.

“People don’t seem to get their day-to-day news from newspapers anymore,” Lorenz said. “Rather they are getting information through social media sites. So we wanted to push the information out socially.”

Glendale was in the midst of a website redesign and looked for a platform that would allow the city to host a Rumors Page to share accurate information and links to resources for residents. Lorenz also wanted it to include an easy tie-in with social channels to allow for fast sharing.

“We needed a website to work interactively with us, and allow people to follow city activities and announcements,” Lorenz told EfficientGov. “We wanted our website to play a bigger role in hosting and sharing government information.”

Shortly after the Rumors Page was launched, a major news source for the State of California published a story claiming Glendale was issuing citations to residents for allowing their lawns to turn brown. Because California is going through a severe drought and under strict water conservation regulations, Just minutes after the story was posted, Glendale began receiving hate mail from California residents and people across the country. The news source had mixed up Glendale with another city in the state, leaving Lorenz to clean up the mess.

“We corrected the message immediately using our Rumors Page and social media channels,” Lorenz told EfficientGov. “Within an hour we eliminated the problem as our accurate information reached the target audience swiftly and efficiently.”

And Glendale is not the only city to take on unfounded rumors. An official in Kansas City learned about Glendale’s Rumors Page and started to investigate possible instances of misinformation in the local community. The city learned there was significant false information floating around and potentially damaging the image of Kansas City. Officials opted to launch a website very similar to Glendale’s to directly address inaccurate rumors before they spread.

According to Lorenz, social media sites are both a blessing and a curse for municipalities.

“The problem is, they are only as good as the links they provide you,” Lorenz explained. “Social messages aim to grab a person’s attention quickly and offer more in-depth information via a link. If the landing page from that link does not provide accurate information, however, the value of the post diminishes.”

Lorenz understood that people want to scan social channels for updates and news that pique their interests and then seek out more information on specific sites. The Rumors Page is designed to do exactly that: engage with people while providing the right data and accurate information.

How It Works
The Rumors Page is managed by Lorenz, who is in charge of the communications for all 14 of Glendale’s departments. Lorenz checks in with each department via a representative during a monthly alignment meeting. During the discussion, Lorenz ensures all communications are consistent and on the same page between each department.

This strategy is used for the Rumors Page and social media activity as well. If Lorenz or another municipal worker discovers there are false statements floating around about the city, it will be corrected on the Rumors Page. Then social channels across all departments will share the same message with the accurate information leading readers back to the Rumors Page for more in-depth coverage. This is a key component to Lorenz’s communication strategy: treating all departments as different pieces to the larger machine rather than as siloed entities working independently.

“City departments should work collaboratively as a cohesive unit that is the city,” Lorenz told EfficientGov. “When issues occur you can then use social media platforms to correct information from any department and lead back to the Rumors Page. This will keep information consistent and constant. De-siloing of the organization was important to the look and feel of the website.”

Do You Need One?
According to Lorenz, there is always going to be someone in the world looking to create a situation and waiting for an organization to react or overreact. These individuals will help spread misinformation in the hopes of stirring the pot. It is important for cities to remain calm and ensure the right information is delivered to the public as efficiently as possible. With the right systems and processes in place, cities can stop a story in its tracks without perpetuating it further or detracting from what is important: serving the public.

“Our goal is to provide services and information. The Rumors Page informs, interprets and provides services,” Lorenz explains. “The website allows users to come to their own conclusions by providing useful resources. Our job is to be transparent and the page helps us accomplish this goal.”

Ashley Fruechting, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives at Vision Internet, explained why cities such as Glendale should fully leverage their municipal websites to communicate directly with citizens.

"Proactive communication is critical in this day and age - especially for government agencies looking to engage their communities," Fruechting told EfficientGov. "Effective websites are more than large repositories of documents."

According to Freuchting, it is important for residents to easily find accurate information through channels and platforms most convenient for them.

"Glendale put a priority on having an advanced content management system and responsive design for its new website, and they've really taken advantage of the website tools Vision Internet makes available to help communicate with citizens," Fruechting explained. "To dispel rumors, it's important for people to be able to access up-to-the-minute information in a format that fits any mobile device."

View the original article on Efficient Gov.

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