Using Social Media to Build Relationships with the Media & Community Influencers


Social media is bringing innovation and change to public sector communications and outreach in fascinating new ways. In an age of 140-character tweets, Facebook “likes,” and YouTube viral videos, public agencies are finding new ways to educate, engage, and communicate with stakeholders, reporters, residents, and industry professionals. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) began rebuilding and seismically strengthening parts of the Hetch Hetchy Regional Water System since 2002, but six years ago they realized that their communication efforts needed to be more aggressive and proactive to reach their tech-savvy and mobile-dependent stakeholders.

In 2013, New York Times tech reporter Claire Cain Miller predicted mobile phones as the primary and most influential means for people to receive and share information. Today, this is especially true for the news industry which continues to see a decline in printed newspapers, but also in desktop readership. Fortunately, the news industry is seeing a rise in mobile readership. Why? More and more Americans are finding themselves to be crazed with their smart phone or tablet. According to the Guardian a 2013 report found that 75-80 percent of those with a smartphone or tablet are interacting with it when not interfacing with a computer directly. More surprising, when smartphone or tablet users are watching TV, 41 percent are using it to research information they are viewing on television.

Before the SFPUC had those metrics, in 2009, SFPUC Water System Improvement Program (WSIP) Communications Director Maureen Barry worked closely with Katz & Associates to identify cost-effective methods to proactively interact and maintain ongoing communication and build partnerships with their vast stakeholders about the progress of this colossal program affecting their 2.6 million Bay Area customers. The team also made it a goal to keep community members and local leaders updated about project-specific construction activities such as road closures, trail closures or nighttime work in a timely fashion.

With construction comes unpredictable schedules, and the WSIP communications team did not want to grieve over next-day mailers or last minute door hanger runs anymore. Instead, they decided to invest in affordable online communication tools to solve this dilemma. Various social media platforms worked together to allow WSIP to brand its broad programmatic messages and, at the same time, communicate to specific audiences about the latest construction activities. For WSIP, the most successful tools are Twitter, email and blogs.


Today, more than 1,500 Bay Area news outlets and reporters have their own Twitter accounts (compared to 300 in Feb. 2010) use Twitter to provide real-time news updates to followers around the clock as well as collect news tips.

For WSIP Communications, it became an important means to communicate to people directly affected by project construction activities and to engage media influencers or elected officials (especially during a time of crisis). By tweeting about upcoming pipeline construction work, subsequent road closures, and community events surrounding the various WSIP activities, local news agencies could retweet the information to their followers or look to the @WSIPInTheNews Twitter handle for more project information or story ideas. The WSIP communications also uses Twitter during media events, which has been successful in reaching reporters who weren’t even at the event. Publications included the Huffington Post, ENR Magazine and other international news sources that picked up our viral news release.