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McHenry County towns go social to get information out

Anna Paul, planning and zoning information specialist for the village of Barrington Hills, updates the village's Twitter account. Barrington Hills is one of six McHenry County communities with a Twitter account, and despite having less than 5,000 residents, it has more than 400 followers.
Anna Paul, planning and zoning information specialist for the village of Barrington Hills, updates the village's Twitter account. Barrington Hills is one of six McHenry County communities with a Twitter account, and despite having less than 5,000 residents, it has more than 400 followers.

When a water main broke in Hebron and water to the entire village was turned off, one village trustee turned to his cellphone and Facebook.

Trustee Mark Mogan joined Facebook when his children asked whether they could have accounts. He figured he’d sign up to keep tabs. He later came up with the idea of a municipal page and created Hebron’s account in late March 2011. For the most part, he mainly had been posting weather alerts and the occasional event reminder.

With a population of just more than 1,200, Hebron’s page hadn’t been getting a lot of traction. But with the news of the water main break in November, the number of “likes” on the page shot up to 73 from eight.

“Word got out pretty quickly,” Mogan said.

The water shutoff proved the page’s worth in a town where a significant portion of the population isn’t comfortable with the Internet, let alone Facebook, he said.

“When I saw how many people viewed it, in the town the size of Hebron, that’s 73 people who may not have heard about [the water main break],” said Mogan, adding that the village had gone door to door putting notices on people’s doors. “Some of these people weren’t home. ... They were out and about and getting the notifications on their phones.”

Hebron isn’t the only McHenry County community to add social media to reach residents.

Of McHenry County’s 30 village and city governments, at least 12 have signed up for accounts on Facebook or Twitter. Six are on both.

Barrington Hills gravitated toward Twitter.

Located at the point where Cook, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties meet, the village would need to monitor a lot of Facebook pages to keep up on the entities that affect them, said Robert Kosin, the village’s director of administration.

Unlike Facebook, which tends to be user-centered, Twitter is built around topics.

Lake County had been pushing Twitter, Kosin said, and when he saw instances where it served a tangible public good – such as reaching drivers stranded on Lake Shore Drive during a blizzard who were not sure whether to leave their cars – he decided to pursue it.

Anna Paul, the village’s planning and zoning information specialist, set up a schedule to make sure the account stays active with timely and relevant news. It sent out its 1,000th tweet on New Year’s Eve.

And now, the village is giving Facebook a try, testing what works for that audience.

Both Barrington Hills and Hebron are small communities with small staffs and few resources, but social media work for them, they said.

“It’s the easiest tool for us to use,” Kosin said. “It does not require backroom equipment, hardware. Anna [Paul] is skilled, at least skilled enough to explain what she’s doing ...”

Bigger towns have delved into social media, too.

The city of McHenry, with about 27,000 residents, signed up for Facebook and Twitter in late November.

Other forms of city communication, including the website and newsletters, require residents to seek it out, Assistant City Manager Bill Hobson said. But social media give the city an opportunity to push information out in front of them.

“The strength comes when they repost things to their pages or share it with their friends,” Hobson said. “You’re probably not going to get a viral situation with municipal news, but if they share it with their friends, that helps us.”

The village of Algonquin, with more than 30,000 residents, isn’t just on Facebook or Twitter. It also has Foursquare and Google Plus accounts.

Google Plus works like Facebook and Twitter, while Foursquare has served as more of a promotional tool, said Michael Kumbera, who is assistant to the village manager and oversees the communications, including social media.

“I like to think we’re on the cutting edge,” Kumbera said, adding that social media help the village meet its goals of being open and transparent, engaging people in what’s going on in the community, and helping them plan their days around any inconveniences.

The feedback from residents has been minimal but positive, municipal officials said.

Algonquin just wrapped up a resident survey, and 82 percent of respondents rated its social media sites as good or excellent, Kumbera said. Nearly 80 percent of Algonquin respondents said they were very likely or likely to recommend living in Algonquin.

While village officials can’t directly point to an increase in engagement or satisfaction as a result of social media campaigns, a 2011 study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Monitor Institute and the Pew Research Center found a correlation between communities with good communication and resident satisfaction and civic engagement.

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