What Can Big Cities Learn about Online Video Strategy from the Town of Gilbert …

At the industry reception for VidCon 2015, I met Jessica Bautista, a Digital Journalist for the Town of Gilbert, Arizona. That’s right, a town with a population of 239,277 had sent a “digital journalist” to cover the industry track, which attracted more than 2,000 professionals from over 600 companies that are building the future of the online video ecosystem. Hey, you can’t make this stuff up.

Now, most of the other people in the “Industry Only” zone on the third floor of the Anaheim Convention Center were advertising agency executives, brand managers, media and network executives, or technologists and platform executives from companies across the online and traditional media ecosystem. As both a former editor of a weekly newspaper and a former elected official in my small town, I figured that there was a big story behind the story of Bautista’s assignment. There was. This week, I got a chance to interview Dana Berchman, the Chief Digital Officer of Gilbert, Arizona. Here are my questions and her answers. But first, take a look at what it means ‘Growing up Gilbert’:

Greg Jarboe: I’ve haven’t interviewed a Chief Digital Officer for a town with a population of 239,277 before. Why did Gilbert, Arizona, once known as the “Hay Shipping Capital of the World,” decide to create a department focused on developing forward-thinking policies for and implementation of social media, digital communications, web initiatives and other tools to better serve the public? What’s the backstory?

Dana Berchman: Before I came to work in Gilbert, the town did not have an established Communications Department. My boss, the Town Manager, had just moved to Gilbert from a suburb of St. Louis and had ideas about how we needed to establish a Communications department, but he wanted to model it after what he’d seen being done related to innovative government digital practices in New York City. So instead of posting a position for a traditional Communications job, he created a position for a Chief Digital Officer to help establish Gilbert as a leader in citizen engagement, open government and digital growth.

I am responsible for all internal, external and digital communications, video production, broadcast, public relations, media relations, social media and marketing efforts for Gilbert. Through our innovative use of technology, we are engaging residents and visitors with sleek web design, high-quality and high-definition video production, mobile applications, social media and other forms of digital media.

Greg Jarboe: Your YouTube channel, Gilbert Digital, was created in October 2009 and now has 585 videos with a total of more than 154,000 views. And your most popular video, « Gilbert, Arizona 2015 Digital State of the Town, » was published in February 2015 and has already has more than 10,000 views. Plus, the official YouTube channel of the Town of Gilbert, Arizona, has 14 playlists. Why did you choose to use video to celebrate your stories and keep people informed on the news from across the town?

Dana Berchman: I believe that traditional press release are going by the way side. One day, in the not so distant future, people won’t even know what a multi-page press release with various quotes is because video and various other forms of digital communications are the new realities of marketing and communication.

I’m fortunate to have spent nearly a decade working in New York City in both short and long-form television; from documentary to live daily news programming. If you can’t use video to tell your story, you’re irrelevant. 2.9 billion people are online. If you can’t use video to get to them, you’re irrelevant.

Greg Jarboe: You also use other social media to help people stay connected. This includes about 10 Twitter accounts, seven Facebook pages, two blogs, two LinkedIn pages, two Google+ pages, an Instagram account, a Pinterest board, and a Flickr photo stream. How do they help you to stay connected?

Dana Berchman: Social media is literally changing how we communicate and is influencing the future direction of our organization. When I started in this position, three years ago, the Mayor of Gilbert didn’t have a Twitter account. Also, as is the case in many governmental organizations, people were very fearful about social media. We now have more than 20 active social media accounts and are currently reaching more than 50,000 people each week through various channels. We also conduct Social Media 101 training for employees and we talk about the importance of celebrating social media and not being fearful of it. We also host monthly SMART Meetings which is a group of social media leaders in the community who come together to share tips, tricks and best practices for handling social media accounts.

Greg Jarboe: At VidCon 2015, I met Jessica Bautista, a Digital Journalist for the Town of Gilbert. Why did you decide to create the Gilbert Arizona Digital Newsroom?

Dana Berchman: The Digital Newsroom is designed as a one-stop shop for media outlets, residents, or those interested in getting Gilbert news. Visitors can come to the website and download high-definition, b-roll footage, sound bites and even video packages for use. With a seemingly dwindling news business, it can be difficult or rare to have reporters or photographers taking pictures or video at every event, so this allows them to watch and use our pre-packaged video stories or download raw footage or photos for their use. We are developing a virtual news team, in-house, that creates news stories on a daily basis with the goal of becoming the most trusted and reliable news source for Gilbert news.

Greg Jarboe: The Town of Gilbert describes itself as “a high performing government organization, employing over 1,200 hundred people with roughly 250 lines of service.” The town’s vision statement says, “Gilbert will be best in class in all lines of service.” How do you measure your YouTube, social media, and digital communications, and web initiatives to demonstrate that you are meeting your objectives?

Dana Berchman: When it comes to this type of innovation, you will not see many cities across the country that are doing what we’re doing. So, we do avoid typical comparisons to other cities of our size. We track our metrics and analytics for growth across all platforms. We also challenge ourselves to continue to find new and innovative ways to expand our reach. We’ve also received various awards for our accomplishments during the past two years, including three distinguished awards for the Digital State of the Town from 3CMA and the Public Relations Society of America.

Greg Jarboe: Other communities around the country must be beating a path to your door. What advice do you give them? What lessons have you learned that you can share with other local officials?

Dana Berchman: I actually got a call recently from someone in Miami, Florida asking me which production company we used to produce our Digital State of the Town. I had to explain that we created the entire production without a budget, using just two in-house staff members, both of our Digital Journalists.  I’ve done some travel and training and assisted various other municipal communication departments with how to establish a digital communications office. I feel that it’s really about hiring the right people. I’ve had great success hiring those that worked other jobs in the private sector previously and in the news business. They had high-quality video skills, including shooting and editing. Also, it’s critical to have the support for all things digital from the top-down; from the City Manager, the Mayor, etc. I hope that one day this will become the standard for all local government communications.

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