GOSHEN — Clicking around online, Lassane Ouedraogo was surprised to see that Elkhart County’s local government is largely absent from Facebook and Twitter, two of the largest social media outlets reaching millions of people every day.
“I thought most county governments had Facebook pages,” said the social media savvy Goshen College student.
Ouedraogo recently began working with county commissioner Mike Yoder as part of a public relations class to come up with a way for government officials to improve communication with the public. Yoder, Ouedraogo quickly discovered, is the only commissioner with a public Facebook page.
“There is a need for both businesses and governments to be connected with people,” Ouedraogo said. “Transparency in government is necessary in all democratic countries and democratic governments, and Elkhart County is well aware of that, so that’s good news.”
Ouedraogo is one of six students in professor Pat Lehman’s May term class who have been working on social media projects. Other students developed social media plans for Habitat for Humanity of Elkhart County and Camp Friedenswald in Cassopolis, Mich.
“We were interested in how Facebook, Twitter and other social media can be used as a public relations tool,” Lehman said.
Ouedraogo researched how four other counties — Allen, Monroe, Vanderburgh and Porter — use social media to connect with locals. Allen County, he said, led the pack with active Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts.
Ouedraogo said Elkhart County should start out by establishing a Facebook page to share news from government departments, major happenings in the area and public service announcements. The county could later add Twitter, Pinterest and YouTube accounts, he said.
There is not a central Facebook page for Elkhart County’s government, but Yoder pointed out that some county offices, like the highway department and sheriff’s department, have their own pages for sharing information such as road closures, major arrests and community events.
Yoder said the first challenge in executing a social media plan for the county is finding someone to manage it all. Ouedraogo explained that the county could hire an intern or enlist a volunteer to maintain a Facebook page, a Twitter feed and a YouTube channel.
“It requires a lot of work and a lot of time, and county government is so busy,” Ouedraogo said.
Yoder said a stronger social media presence could help the commissioners gather feedback about local policies and learn more about the public’s concerns.
“We are really, really missing the opportunity that social media has for us to get more instantaneous and a wider variety of input,” he said.
People are often reluctant to contact their county leaders, Yoder added.
“I get that a lot,” he said. “People say, ‘I’m sorry to bother you.’ Well, that’s part of my job, so I wonder if there’s a way for social media to make us more approachable.”
Yoder said the county government is not in a position to hire someone to be in charge of social media right now, but he would like to see the county ramp up its online presence at some point next year.