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City Director of Communications Desiree Peterkin Bell on social media strategy [Friday Q&A]

"Philadelphia has had a strong, engaged tech community and a government wanting to innovate and redefine the communications paradigm."

It’s been a year since the City of Philadelphia hired Desiree Peterkin Bell as Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships.
In that time, we’ve seen a more proactive approach to social media across Philadelphia city agencies, and even outside of it, like this week’s announcement that the Philadelphia Parking Authority would pursue an aggressive social media strategy.
When Technically Philly interviewed Mayor Michael Nutter last fall, social media was barely a blip on his radar.
Since Peterkin Bell took the helm of the office and began pushing the City toward social media engagement, Mayor Nutter has taken to Twitter, growing from 300 followers a year ago to more than 18,000.
That count doesn’t yet match the brand of Newark Mayor Corey Booker, Peterkin Bell’s employer from 2006 to Fall 2010, who has engaged 1.1 million followers. But it’s a far cry from the city’s once inept social media strategy, which only a year ago was blindly sharing press releases typed out in all-caps, a strategy much satirized by Philly’s tech community.
Though her early career impact will likely be attributed to her social media chops, don’t call Peterkin Bell — who earns a $150,000 salary from the City and lives in a home on South Broad Street, the Avenue of the Arts — platform dependent. In New York City, she worked under Mayor Bloomberg as Senior Director of Government Affairs for the New York’s marketing development corporation, working with brands like General Motors and Universal Studios to sell city assets for marketing purposes. She now uses that experience to persuade national media organizations to recognize Philadelphia’s assets as a continually growing and prosperous city.
At the heart of her role, she’s coordinating a centralized communications strategy that includes interface with national media, the city’s public access television channel, and making sure that no matter the citizen and no matter the message, the city is working to reach them.
After the jump, Peterkin Bell shares her experience in New York and Newark, the extent of her role as Communications Director, and where she think the city’s communications strategy is headed.

Having been in New York and then Newark, why Philadelphia?
I am slowly working my way through Amtrak. Kidding. [Newark] was an amazing experience and I had a chance to do a lot of stuff that wasn’t being done in other cities, but I was looking to do something different. I went to Swarthmore College as an undergraduate, where I met my husband. I always loved it here. I created a list of options [when considering leaving Newark] because my husband could be anywhere in the country because he has his own company. Philadelphia kept coming up on everything: arts and culture, integrity, government and responsiveness. Great Mayor, great nightlife, great place to raise a family.
What do you mean when you say you created things that weren’t being done in other cities?
In Newark, the challenge there was to break through traditional media clutter. I say clutter in a very respectful way, but the only attention we were getting was negative. A shooting was easy to get above-the-fold. If we were opening a fatherhood center or creating an earned income tax credits — pitching great stories — those were not highlighted nearly as much. We latched on to social media. It became a fundamental shift in how we as a city communicated. It helped define the city’s brand, helped define Booker’s brand. I saw that cities can be incubators of change. Philly has the best of those worlds: a strong engaged tech community and a government wanting to innovate and redefine the communications paradigm.
What are your core responsibilities as Director of Communications and Strategic Partnerships?
Traditionally, I oversee the press office, working hand-in-hand with our press secretary Mark McDonald. He does defense, I do offense. He’s an amazing asset because he’s been on the other side asking the hard questions. I do a lot of the un-traditional, social media and civic engagement. On the strategic partnerships side, I also think outside of the box about how we are creating communications mediums between citizens and government, working on things like the Department of Public Safety’s iPledge campaign. Philadelphia was able to get Education Nation to focus on the city. Chris Matthews did [Hardball] live here and Andrea Mitchell of Education Nation did the same. Those are un-traditional ways of communicating our messages and progress made in the city. It was sitting down with those folks, having a conversation first about why they needed to bring this to the city.

“Even in a digital age, there are folks who still prefer that you knock on their door.” — Peterkin Bell

What are your priorities?
My priorities are to engage, educate and innovate. Sometimes it’s a video, sometimes it’s a press conference, sometimes it’s a Facebook message, sometimes it’s an event and sometimes it’s all of the above. As for innovation, no other Mayor in the country has partnered with a local broadcast station to do an unrehearsed, full-hour to take questions from every medium imaginable. But the majority of my time is spent around national media. I don’t want people to just see me as the social media conversation.
What have you been changing about the Mayor’s communication strategy?
What’s important to note is that the City didn’t have a communications director for two years. Absent of that, you had people creating communications on their own, to their credit. What you didn’t have was someone centrally located understanding how they were doing that. How many email newsletters exist in the city? How many Twitter accounts? Is there coordination among all of the press officers? It’s not necessarily changed, it’s just more open internally.
Second is trying to understand what tools exist: Channel 64, social media,, collateral materials throughout. Understanding what those things are and how they match with how people define accomplishments. It’s first gathering it, communicating it, and being very clear about those things.
So, how many Twitter accounts does the City have?
We’re still trying to find out. There’s definitely more than 12. In the process of finding out, I’ve also tried to let folks know that if we’re going to use this tool as a medium, how do we best use it? Often times, people started them because they knew it was a good thing to do, they just didn’t have a strategy behind it. Didn’t have a message they were trying to convey. Part of it was bringing in people from Twitter and Facebook to explain how best to use these tools.
Have you turned agencies or staff on to Twitter? Was it a hard sell?
A great example is Hurricane Irene. When you had FEMA telling folks to use social media to communicate, that’s when people said “this can be used in emergency situations if needed to communicate with masses.” But I always say that social media is a tool in a toolbox. It shouldn’t lead your strategy, but it’s part of your strategy, including a press release, press conference, a conversation with reporters. People receive information differently. Even in a digital age, there are folks who still prefer that you to give them a collateral piece of information or knock on their door.
What lessons about civic engagement have you learned, having handled social media side?
It’s a great democratization of content and influence. It allows everyday people to share what motivates and inspires them. It also allows them to be content creators, create a news cycle and influence policy. Knowing that exists and being a part of it means that we’re creating a direct line of engagement between government and that constituent.
You were an integral part of starting Newark’s public access cable station — how are you hoping to improve Philadelphia’s?
Channel 64 is a priority. In Newark, we literally built the TV studio. The great thing about Philadelphia is that the TV station exists here already. There are some smaller changes. We’re trying to post a lot more public service messages and we’re going to be announcing soon some new show ideas, focusing on ways to make it not just stodgy, but entertaining as well. The other thing that we’ve done is try to not just focus on just the Mayor’s press conferences in City Hall. There’s a lot of press conferences that are outside the city’s walls. It’s also helpful to change the backdrop.
A year in to this job, what have been your successes?
I wouldn’t count successes, I’d say progress. There’s still a lot of progress to be made. One was establishing the importance of this role. Second is getting people to also understand that social media can be a helpful way to communicate with constituencies. In order to support civic participation, a strategy is needed. Third is getting people to focus on Philadelphia who probably haven’t before, everyone from the Esquires of the world, the Washington Posts of the world, making sure our stories and our initiatives and our progress here in the city, from this administration, are highlighted as well. I’m learning new things every day.
What is the future for you? What do you aspire to? Are you interested in a federal role?
The action is on the municipal government level. I’ve had opportunity to work for the federal government. I’m more committed to cities, which are more apt to everyday change. Real impact is in cities.

Companies: City of Philadelphia
People: Cory Booker / Desiree Peterkin-Bell / Michael Nutter

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