Champaign council looks at new forms of communication

Champaign council looks at new forms of communication

CHAMPAIGN – As technology evolves, so does the way city officials keep their constituents informed.

Ideas of how to get information to city residents better were presented to the city council this week, and officials are discussing how to balance old media – like newspapers and written correspondence – with new media like Twitter and Facebook.

"We're in a technology age where things change rapidly, and we need to have city staff assigned to the task," council member Deborah Frank Feinen said Wednesday.

Officials conducted a survey of residents before developing an updated "Public Communications Plan," and most residents – about 78 percent – said they are satisfied with the information they receive from the city. About 13 percent said they were not satisfied, and the rest did not respond.

"There are some areas where we could use improvement, but it is vastly better than it used to be," council member Tom Bruno said Wednesday.

City officials use various media – local news media, the city Web site and a government-run cable channel – to disseminate different kinds of information, like emergency snow operations and city meeting notices.

Nearly 80 percent of survey respondents indicated they receive their information about the city from local newspapers – including online and print editions. Just more than 300 people completed the survey, providing 95 percent accuracy in their responses, according to city documents.

But surveyors included a new response in the most recent questionnaire, and the option is one of the areas in which Bruno said the city could improve. About 11 percent say they receive their city information from "Twitter/e-mail subscriptions."

"Communications has changed just about every year," fire department spokeswoman Dena Schumacher said Wednesday. "There are words (like Twitter) we didn't know back in 2003."

Twitter.com allows its users to send information in the form of 140-character mini-blogs. Users then select whose messages they would like to view.

The city's most recent post, published on Oct. 2, 2009, directed viewers to a summary of a Sept. 29 minority contractors program meeting.

During Tuesday night's council meeting, Bruno said the city may have missed an opportunity with Twitter.

"We are becoming a society with an unquenchable appetite for information, especially in a high-tech community like this," Bruno said. "So the demands are different now than they were 10 or 20 years ago."

Schumacher said the city is now researching new ways to share information with its residents.

"There's a lot more that I think we can provide and need to provide," Schumacher said.

"I do think that we need to continue with traditional media, we need to be talking to our local reporters and getting stories and information out to them," Feinen said. "But we also need to be proactive in getting our own information out."

Last month, the city council committed about $30,000 to redesign the city's Web site, from which 40 percent of residents indicated they receive information about the city.

"Our Web site is our calling card for people all over the world," Bruno said. "And it has to look sharp."

For locals, Feinen said, the Web site needs to provide a resource for in-depth information on a particular issue.

"There's a difference about getting news ... and seeking information about a particular issue or needing a permit," Feinen said. "I think that those kinds of things are likely what individuals will turn to the Web to look for."

Various documents, budget items and recorded council meetings are among the things that should be provided on the city's Web site, Feinen said.

"We need to do all those things even if we don't do them perfectly," Feinen said.

And as communications technology continues to evolve, Schumacher said, the city will work to stay on top of its responsibility to keep citizens informed.

"I wondered last night as I was going home if the city of Champaign should have an iPhone app," Feinen said.

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