How has social media changed city government? Fort Wayne's ‘Mayor Tom' Henry weighs in

Tom Henry has lived in Fort Wayne most of his life. Before being elected mayor in 2008, he served on Fort Wayne City Council from 1983-2003, representing the northwest quadrant.

Strangely enough, 2003 is also the same year that MySpace launched, marking the dawn of a social media age that has expanded to include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, and a whole host of live video and podcasting services. Today, social media has changed the world, influencing local politics and public discourse, too.

But while some mayors and civic leaders across the country have been slow to adapt, Henry has taken the social era in stride by posting, tweeting, and podcastingeven experimenting with new media before most other mayors in the U.S., his team notes.

“When we started the podcast last year, Mayor Henry was one of only ten mayors in the country to have his own podcast,” says John Felts, the Mayor’s Public Outreach Coordinator. “Similarly, for Facebook Live, he was one of five mayors in the country to use that platform. But now everybody’s doing it."

Today, Mayor Henry reaches 75,000-100,000 followers per week across all of his social media channels.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with the mayor to learn more about how he uses social media in city government, what his experience has taught him, and what advice he has for leaders in other cities.

Fort Wayne's Mayor Tom Henry was one of the first mayors to use Facebook Live and podcasting.

IFW: Tell us your background with social media. How were you introduced?

MH: Three or four years ago, my colleagues in the political arena, including fellow mayors, were sharing how social media was becoming an effective tool for communication among themselves and the general public. I learned that it was a great way to get your word out and use for everyday operations.

Before getting on social media, we would get letters saying, “I never see the Mayor,” or “How do I get a hold of the Mayor?” and “We know the Mayor walks the neighborhoods, but he will never get to mine.”

We needed a way to become more approachable and more accessible. That was the foundation behind all of this.

IFW: What social media platform did you use first, and how did your social media use grow from there?

MH: Facebook was the very first tool, and we used it primarily to open lines of communication between the general public and us. It wasn’t just me trying to get messages out to the public, but more importantly, it was an opportunity to communicate with our administration. Then, we saw the advantages of Twitter and Instagram and added those channels.

Just a year ago, my staff introduced me to things like Facebook Live and podcasting. So, we experimented, and now we are using those on a regular basis. We have a podcast every other week (twice a month), and we do a Facebook Live session once a month (check the City’s Facebook page for details).

IFW: Do you remember your first social media post?

MH: Oh my! I probably said something like, “I am online now!” It’s hard to think back that far to the exact post, but I do remember the first experience, which was a little intimidating.

Once you become a little bit more acclimated to the use of social media, you become more comfortable. You can delete e-mail but when you’re “live,” it’s all out there. So, the fear of the unknown was there at first, but as I gained familiarity, it became a lot easier. Now we use it constantly. It’s every day.

IFW: How would you say that social media has enhanced your communication with the public?

MH: One thing that I’ve been trying to do, since the very beginning of my first term, is to both show and tell the general public that this mayor is both accessible and approachable. I want to show how I am approachable on the street, but also accessible in a number of ways.

For example, we have “Mayor’s Night In” events, where people come to my office, and they spend several minutes with me talking about concerns or problems that they may have. While we are able to help them that evening with a particular concern, some people can’t get here, so social media can help.

Another example is we have several hundred neighborhoods, and I try to walk as many as I can but I may not reach your neighborhood because there are so many. Social media provides an alternative way for our citizens to have access to the city’s administration, including myself.

I want to let people know that politicians are accessible. When I was younger, I remember the Mayor at that time would walk in, and it was a little startling. I also remember the first time I met a United States President.

Again, it’s intimidating because this is a powerful individual, and it can be the same feeling locally. That’s what I’m trying to do—lessen that intimidating factor. There’s not a better compliment to me than when I am walking down the aisle at a grocery store, and somebody yells out “Hi, Mayor Tom!”

Not only is that person saying something in a friendly fashion, they say, “Mayor Tom” and not “Mayor Henry.” That tells me that they’re getting the message. I am reaching people, and it’s not replacing me.

IFW: Which social media platform do you like the most?

MH: I actually like Twitter the most. My biggest following is on Twitter, and it remains the most engaging. Many public officials use Twitter to get information out to the public, including public announcements and official business, and the news outlets use quotes from my Twitter feed often.

One of the areas that we are still growing is how we communicate with our neighborhoods via social media. Historically, we did this with newsletters, snail mail, and telephone conversations. Neighborhood association officers didn’t have access to nor were properly equipped to communicate via social media, but now they are.

More and more we are communicating with these neighborhood associations in the city through social media, like Twitter.

IFW: How do you feel social media has impacted local government work?

MH: It provides the public with almost immediate response to a problem. It’s one thing to call about something you can handle in a week or several weeks. It’s something else when there’s a problem that could be more dangerous.

The immediacy of communication and response has really changed government immensely. It heightens our accountability to citizens. For example, we have quality standards for our departments, and we have certain parameters for operation, including the time in which something gets completed.

If somebody Tweets us that there’s a pothole on Clinton Street, and they almost broke their axle, that comes to us right away via social media. We can immediately go to the Street Department to fix it. If it’s not completed within four hours, that is noted, and we keep track to remain accountable.

We have learned that once you start using social media, your audience knows you’re getting the message right now. It’s not like you’re sending a letter, which you’re going to get in three or four days. Nor can you make the excuse that the message got lost in the mail. They know when you get it now, and they expect a response.

IFW: Social media’s immediacy and accessibility can be both a blessing and a curse sometimes. How do you manage it, and how has it impacted the way you pursue political discourse?

MH: My team and I meet regularly to talk about the announcements that are going out that day, and I ask them to do some keyboarding for me. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time to answer all of the requests we get, but we go through them, and we know which ones are authentic or politically motivated.

They do a pretty good job of screening, and while we try to answer everything, there are some questions that are more difficult to answer. For example, I have 1,800 employees who work their tails off every day, and so, if someone were to criticize or chastise someone on my team via social media, and I know it’s incorrect, I simply don’t engage in it.

More than anything, I always think about our communication during a serious police matter or fire situation. The chiefs have to let me know immediately about the incident so I can effectively respond as the Mayor. I am the first one that most media call, so should the media call me, and I don’t know what they’re talking about, that’s not a good sign of leadership.

So whether it’s the media or the citizen base, to be able to have the accurate information immediately prepares me to respond and inform. We are communicating all the way, but sometimes there are situations where there’s information that we are not in a position to release to the public because we are just not prepared yet. From there, I relay to the general public or the media and discern from what is appropriate and what’s not.

IFW: Tell us more about Facebook Live and podcasting. These are innovative platforms. When you’re live, you can’t go back and edit like other forms of social media. Why do you choose to use it?

MH: For Facebook Live, again it’s accessibility. We let people know when it’s coming up. We get questions from the public, and I answer those “on the air.”

Sometimes, I panic a little bit when someone asks a question or makes a comment that is too personal. I have to be very careful how I answer at times. For example, sometimes they will ask me questions about an initiative that we are working on, and if we are in the middle contract negotiations, I can’t release that information. But we get through it pretty well, and it’s fun.

During my first few podcasts, I was updating citizens on different initiatives and projects. Now, I use it to inform the public of what’s going on in the city.  I have guests that join me on my podcast. I had Joe Jordan, CEO of Boys and Girls Club Fort Wayne, join me the other day and Sister Elise, President at the University of St. Francis, will be coming up next, which will be fun.

IFW: What advice would you give other mayors to be more effective and engaging on social media?

MH: Unquestionably, if you are not using social media, you better start. You are getting behind the times if you are not.

Don’t just use one tool; use all the tools that are available to you. In the beginning, we tried a couple different things and some just didn’t work for us, but that’s okay. Other platforms will come out and as they make themselves available, we need do some research to determine if it’s applicable or not.

In addition, I would advise to not let social media replace personal, one-on-one time. Just because you are using social media, doesn’t mean you should stop walking your neighborhoods or stop inviting people into your office. That still needs to be a major component of your communication.

Also, don’t ignore other forms of media. There are channels all around you, including radio, newspapers, and television. You should utilize them because not everybody uses social media. In fact, I was just at a meeting at a nursing home, and most of the residents had no idea what I was talking about with social media, but they watch TV and read the newspaper.

You need to know your audience and how to communicate with your audience. From there, you pick and choose the tools that are best.

IFW: What other social media accounts do you think Fort Wayne should be following?

MH: There are so many! The Downtown Improvement District (@downtownfortwayne) keeps residents updated on what’s going on downtown. Visit Fort Wayne (@visitfortwayne) always shares great stuff. The City of Fort Wayne (@cityoffortwayne) shares great information from the local government, as does Greater Fort Wayne Inc. (@greaterfortwayneinc), which represents the chamber of commerce.

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