By Liz Carmack, Sr. Communications Specialist
Chances are, your county has a Facebook page and you might have one for your county office. You may even tweet now and then. But what about Instagram? Is this photo and video-sharing platform part of your communications arsenal?
Instagram lets you tell the county story through images and brief (one minute or less) videos. You can caption your image, note the location and add hashtags (such as #texascountiesdeliver) to categorize your content. Users can search for and follow particular hashtags to see all posts related to that subject.
"We use Instagram as part of our overall social media communications strategy as a way to reach a younger audience," said Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez. "More than 70% of Instagram users are between 18 and 34 years old. Instagram is a good avenue to engage them and introduce them to county government and all that counties do for our residents."
Explaining County Government
Brazoria County Judge L.M. "Matt" Sebesta Jr. said Instagram is an important part of their overall communication efforts to help residents better understand their county government and the essential services it provides.
"Most people don’t know what county government does," Sebesta said. He recommends county officials use Instagram to help explain county government's value through photos. "I think it’s an important tool in the toolbox to communicate with folks."
Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said he’s seen the value of using Instagram and other social media.
“Traditional media outlets are no longer the primary source of news and information for a large segment of the population,” Moran said. “Using Instagram and other media platforms helps to ensure that we are educating our younger constituency about how county government works, the beneficial services it provides and why they should be plugged in to local government.”
Several Texas counties have established Instagram accounts. Individual county departments and county officials’ have also jumped on the band wagon. Their Instagram feeds feature specific information about the services they provide residents, show behind-the-scenes glimpses of their work, acknowledge staff achievements, and publicize upcoming events and more.
Hidalgo County Commissioner, Prec. 2, Eddie Cantu established an Instagram account for his office four years ago. “We thought it would be the best way to show constituents what we do on a daily basis so they could see where their tax dollar is going,” he said. Cantu said he’s able to reach a lot of people (he has 1,400 followers) using minimal resources. “We can do it for free and it’s immediate,” he said. “It’s like having an online magazine.”
Cantu and his staff take turns posting photos or short videos once a day. The content includes before, during and after photos reporting on precinct road projects; announcements of new programs, services or facilities available to county residents; and the occasional selfie of Cantu with his family.
“It’s good to show the community who you are and what you do outside the county. We’re human beings and there’s more to us than just doing our job,” Cantu said.
Fort Bend and Nueces County libraries rely on Instagram to reach a younger audience who may not follow their Facebook and Twitter feeds.
“We tell our library story,” said Nueces County Director of Libraries Ida Garza. Posts feature library services, events and staff, and the community members using the library. Their strategy to use Instagram and other social feeds to promote events instead of paying for advertising in local papers is working. “We’ve seen a big increase in the patrons attending our functions,” she said.
Sandy Johnson, Fort Bend County Libraries marketing and communications manager, said the county launched its Instagram feed in March 2018. “We decided that Instagram would cover a younger demographic while opening the door for a more visual view of the library and everything we have to offer.”
Cortez said Hidalgo County tries to post eye-catching photos and graphics to capture the attention of their followers. “We focus on the services that are available to county residents, events they can attend and a behind-the-scenes look at their taxpayer dollars at work,” he said.
Improving Public Safety
Brazoria County’s Instagram feed features safety information, including news about road closures, tips to help residents stay cool in the summer heat and beach advisories. Sebesta said Instagram and the county’s other social feeds have been invaluable channels to share critical information with residents during weather-related emergencies.
“We’ve had two floods in 2015, a major flood in 2016 and Hurricane Harvey in 2017, and we can say we had no loss of life in Brazoria County — in part because we do a pretty darn good job of getting the message out and communicating with our citizenry,” Sebesta said. “We can’t control the flooding and hurricanes, but we can control the messaging.”
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office is one of many sheriffs’ offices around the state who use Instagram to promote public safety and inform the public about the services they provide while showing the human side of law enforcement. The office has more than 2,300 followers. Their profile encourages users to follow them for “sheriff’s office breaking news, public alerts, road closures, critical incidents or other emergency situations.” But they also post photos of sheriff’s deputies visiting county schools, Coffee with a Deputy events and details about upcoming blood drives and pet spay and neuter events.
Social Media’s Benefits Outweigh Costs
County officials on Instagram and other social media channels say the benefits outweigh any downside.
Cantu said he’s heard some county officials say they are hesitant to use social media because they are concerned about negative comments posted on their feeds, but he treats negative or incorrect comments as learning moments — opportunities to set the record straight and educate the public.
“We have experienced negative comments, but for the most part our experience has been positive,” Cantu said. “If it’s negative, all we can do is educate and explain what we’re doing.”
Cantu said his office created social media feeds to show the public what the precinct was doing and because he wanted to hear the community’s concerns, adding that he addresses all questions posted.
“We’ve never regretted one day being on social media,” he said. “It’s quite the opposite. We couldn’t imagine running our precinct without it.”
14 Tips to Get Started with Instagram
1. Set up your Instagram business account. Go to help.instagram.com for guidance on how to sign up and get started, navigate the Instagram app, post photos and videos and much more. (Or ask the teenager or 20-something in your household for help!)
2. Follow the Texas Association of Counties (texascounties). Take inspiration from posts on Tuesday, when we feature county services delivered across the state.
3. Post regularly. Post at roughly the same time of day and on the same days of the week (whether that’s once a week, three times a week or more). Your users will get used to seeing you in their feed at those times on those days. “We post at either 11 a.m. or 3 p.m.,” said Bell County Museum Executive Director Coleman Hampton. “It gives people a chance to see it when checking their Instagram on their lunch hour and when getting off work.”
4. Feature county officials and staff doing their jobs. A photo or short video showing them at work helps illustrate to the public how #texascountiesdeliver.
5. Feature county programs or projects that benefit residents. Posts can help raise awareness and encourage residents to access particular services and facilities.
6. Tell a story with engaging images. Visually appealing, well-composed and well-lighted photos featuring interesting subject matter help attract attention as viewers scroll through their feeds.
7. Write short, informative captions. Come up with a brief sentence or two to accompany your photo and fill in important details and, if needed, add a “call to action” that directs your followers to attend an event or click the website link in your bio.
8. Use hashtags to attract new followers. Add up to 10 hashtags using relevant key words underneath the caption of your post or in a comment on your post. Instagram users can search for and follow particular hashtags. Using the right hashtags help you expand your audience. Hashtag ideas:
• Use a local-focused hashtag with your county’s name, such as #WilliamsonCounty or #SmithCounty.
• Use a specific hashtag appropriate for the subject pictured, such as #texaslawenforcement or #texasclerks.
• Create your own hashtag to use with several posts related to a theme or event and encourage Instagrammers to use it too, such as #fortbendcountylibrary or #funfactfriday.
• Add the #texascountiesdeliver hashtag to any post that’s about your county providing services to residents.
9. Post smartphone video. “Video definitely always attracts more views,” said Travis County East District Park Manager Tim Speyrer. Hidalgo County Commissioner Eddie Cantu agreed and said he often posts short videos to boost engagement.
10. Use free tools. Post to Instagram using the free Instagram app downloaded to your mobile device. Post simultaneously on Facebook and Instagram by linking your Facebook page to your Instagram business account. (Heads up — you’ll need to add hashtags to your Instagram post after it’s gone live.) If you need more help, paid tools like Hootsuite.com and Later.com can help you manage multiple social media accounts at once.
11. Get creative with filters. Instagram allows you to edit photos with filters and other tweaks to make photos pop with color or change their mood. Use these sparingly to create a fun effects.
12. Post an Instagram story. Choose a few photos and add text and graphics to them or string photos and a short video together to create an Instagram story that grabs users’ attention for 24 hours. If you add the story as a “highlight” it will remain at the top of your feed until you remove it. See texascounties Instagram highlighted stories for examples.
13. Use audience data. For business accounts, the Instagram app on your mobile device provides basic demographics of your audience, tells you which posts they most often engage with and what time of day they are on Instagram. Use the information to adjust what and when you post to increase followers and their engagement.
14. Establish posting guidelines. Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said that Instagram, just like all other information pipelines, needs to be carefully managed. “Local governments should pay careful attention to who is able to post, when postings occur, and the content of those postings,” he said. “Speed of disseminating information is not the goal; rather it is the timely dissemination of accurate and useful information to a more widespread audience.”