Leslie Flynn got in trouble for an exclamation point. The kerfuffle started innocently enough when Flynn, the communications coordinator for the city of Oak Creek, posted a street construction alert on Facebook.
A commentor asked if the city would also repair the nearby railroad tracks, and Flynn responded from the city’s account: “Repairs to the railroad tracks are not part of this project, and definitely not in the city’s realm! We will let you know, however, if and when we learn that the railroad plans to do any work on the tracks.” She provided contact information for the railroad company and encouraged the commentor to reach out.
“Two people called me out for making it sound like I was saying, ‘Sorry, not our problem,’” Flynn says. (Which, in her defense, it was not.) In the face of the backlash, she ended up apologizing for unintentionally sounding dismissive.
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“In the case of a heated discussion, even an exclamation point can be misread as flippant instead of lighthearted,” Flynn says, reflecting on the incident, which has by now faded into the decades’ worth of posts and comments, likes and retweets, hot takes and sensitive citizens that have filled her hours running social media for Oak Creek.
Flynn is one of a relatively rare breed in Wisconsin: full-time municipal communications managers. Whenever you see a social media post from a city account – maybe about garbage pickup times, recycling programs, ballot boxes – it’s likely that one of them was behind it.
Municipal departments, like the library, public works or police, will coordinate with them about messages they want pushed to the public, such as upcoming events, construction updates or park closures. The comms staff then draft ideas for posts, write them, choose graphics and photos, and respond to the comments and questions that arise.
Most Wisconsin municipalities staff just one or two full-time comms professionals – Milwaukee, which has several departments with full-time staffers, being a notable exception.
These public employees, with their very particular problems (and heavy workloads), have formed a sort of fraternity that calls itself The Platespinners. The group was started by Gail Sumi, the communications director for the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, in 2017.
She describes it as an otherwise “solitary job.”
“It’s really nice to have a group of people who have those same challenges and opportunities to talk with,” she says. “All of us here are constantly spinning 1,000 plates at once.”
The Platespinners has roughly 50 members, from Milwaukee and Madison to Milton and Marshfield, with a little over a dozen of those being full-time comms workers. The group is primarily female, with ages ranging from early 20s to mid-60s. Some members have only been at the job a year or so; others have decades of experience under their belts.
Every month, the group assembles, either in-person or in a Zoom room, to talk shop. Topics are broad, although the discussion often turns to a problem that is universal among the members: trolls.
Visit any municipality’s Facebook page and you’ll find commentors venting rage. Some are real complaints about civic issues, such as this on-topic comment on a post by Wauwatosa: “Another water rate increase?! Since moving here four years ago, my water bill more than doubled.” Others less so, such as a comment on an Appleton post celebrating the city’s nurses: “Administering CovAIDS jabs makes you an assassin.”
“I have to remind myself all the time to ignore the trolls,” says Sheng Riechers, the senior communication specialist with Appleton. “We kind of joke that if we’re neutral, with a positive skew, then we’re doing good.”
Eva Ennamorato, Wauwatosa’s comms manager, sees her fair share of negative comments, notably in winter when “snow grumpies” tend to grouse about plowing, but she finds that the best method, when someone has an honest complaint, is engagement. “Even if I read [a comment] as snarky, I try to remind myself that maybe they’re curious about something,” Ennamorato says. “And if I can give them a resource, maybe that will help.”
And the engagement is certainly not all bad. Ennamorato says she was particularly proud of Wauwatosa’s social media presence when a groundswell of citizen feedback pushed for more public park space. In April, that led to the City Council earmarking $4 million from the American Rescue Plan Act for parks, including a new one on the city’s west side.
“That’s one of the best things that can come from social media and engaging your local community,” she says. “I think there is a stereotype of government, like nobody ever responds or it’s just this building that isn’t human. … We successfully got people to participate and then we could show them, this is how your feedback was taken.”
When asked about social media’s net impact on government communications, the response among The Platespinners was universal. While there are certainly drawbacks, they believe it’s been a positive force, providing fast, direct, unparalleled engagement between a government and its citizens. The trolls aren’t winning.
“[Social media] drives me crazy some days, I’m not gonna lie,” Flynn says. “But now I can’t imagine working without it.”