Portage County, Ohio uses research and policy to get social media off the ground

This story was featured in our ELECTricity newsletter in November 2013. Sign up to receive more success stories from election offices across the country. And how is your election office using technology to run excellent elections? Tell us about it by emailing kurt@techandciviclife.org -- we'd love to share your story!

Located between the cities of Akron and Youngstown, Portage County, Ohio is named for the portage of the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers. With its county seat at Ravenna, Portage County is home to 108,594 registered voters, 131 precincts, and over 500 poll workers. It’s also home to a member of Goodyear’s blimp fleet, the Spirit of Goodyear. But don’t head there just yet; rides on the blimp are available only by special invitation of the company.

We enjoy checking out the Portage County Board of Elections Twitter content, so we reached out to their Deputy Director, Brad Cromes, to learn about their leap into social media. Brad was kind enough to share what he's learned about how an election office can establish a social media presence responsibly and effectively. 

Buy-in: ask for permission, not forgiveness

From the time the idea of launching a Twitter account was first discussed to their perfect first Tweet, Portage County's elections team invested six months researching social media best practices and social media policies of local governments. Along the way, they dedicated time to creating buy-in by sharing statistics and research on how citizens, especially younger citizens, interact with government with their Information Technology (IT) department, forging a strong working relationship. They explored potential pitfalls of different social media platforms and the options to mitigate those risks.

As an independent board, the Portage County Board of Elections had the option to develop a social media program autonomously, without approval from the county IT department or the county Board of Commissioners. Nevertheless, they made the case to stakeholders as to why social media is a useful tool for the election office. They also solicited feedback on how to best use social media to share information with the public without creating a records retention issue or an unmonitored public forum.

The proud seal of Portage County's Board of Elections

The proud seal of Portage County's Board of Elections

The journey began with preliminary research on how social media was being used by other local government offices in Ohio. Brad and his team discovered the benefits of social media, such as getting information directly to voters in a timely way. They then presented their data to the Board of Elections and got the green light for a more focused study on implementation. Following Board approval, staff met with the Portage County IT department to analyze different social media platforms.

Twitter vs. Facebook

The Portage County Board concluded that the two-way communication of Facebook, while a useful way to connect and interact directly with voters, presents challenges with records retention, forum moderation, and establishing guidelines. Given these liabilities, they decided Twitter would be the best fit for their office. Twitter would allow the Board to share timely information relevant to voters while not requiring the amount of monitoring and management of a Facebook page.

Social media policy

When developing their social media content policy, Portage County primarily studied:

With their eyes on Twitter, Brad and his colleagues wrote a policy that would govern their use of the service, and allow for expansion should the Board wish to explore more platforms in the future. They engaged IT staff, and with their advice developed the Portage County Board of Elections Social Media Content Policy.

Portage County's Board Tweeted out its social media policy with the message to "play nice."

Portage County's Board Tweeted out its social media policy with the message to "play nice."

Staff presented the Twitter policy and proposal to their Board for final approval. They have been Tweeting like champions since August of 2013.

Twitter tools and resources

For election administrators who want to Tweet for your office, you can save time making your case by using the resources provided here -- especially Portage County’s social media policy. Once you’ve got approval and a policy for Twitter, follow up with these next steps:

  1. Tweet every day. Need content? Check out our Sample Tweets for Local Election Administrators.

  2. Archive Tweets. For help, try the TwInbox Extension for Outlook.

  3. Schedule content and track usage stats. Consider using Hootsuite or TweetDeck.

*Bonus tip: recruit an intern! Much of the work on this project in Portage County was completed by an election administration intern from a local university. The intern conducted the research, discussed findings with supervisors, and met personally with the county’s IT staff. As a student and young voter, the intern was the perfect messenger for the idea that social media could help reach voters where they were with the information they needed to participate fully in our democracy.

What steps have you taken to introduce social media into your election office? We'd love to shine some light on the good work you're doing. Email us at kurt@techandciviclife.org so that we can write our next spotlight article about you and your office.