woman closing/opening her laptopBy Vanessa Solesbee, CAPP, CCTM

I grew up with a passion for public service, and while I never thought that passion would take me into parking, I am so glad it did. When I had the opportunity to take classes at the Disney Institute as part of a summer internship between my freshman and sophomore years in college, I remember thinking I had found my people and my calling. Cultivating the ability to navigate even the most difficult customer interactions—to listen, educate without talking down; to really engage with someone that had a strongly held belief that was different from mine and to do so in such a way that they left them feeling like something magical had taken place? Um, yes, please. Count me in.

So why, with my passion for solving the toughest problems head on, did I decide a few weeks ago to hit the pause button on part of our current community engagement strategy and take a break from social media?

In preparation for implementation of paid parking this summer for the first time in our town’s history, we have been on stakeholder engagement overdrive since 2017. Public meetings, online tools, intercept surveys, booths at the farmers’ market, nearly 40 presentations to community groups (in the last four months alone!), weekly “parking office hours”,”door-to-door visits downtown—you name it, we’ve done it. While some of these interactions have been challenging, none have held a candle to the constant and vitriolic response when we post on social media. The content itself makes no difference—from announcing new incentive programs to sharing that we are planning to spend the revenue to reinvest into future parking and transit offerings, it doesn’t matter. The online fury is swift and intense.

Like many communities, we have a few, very vocal stakeholders who are absolutely incensed about paid parking. This situation is not unique to our town. However, I have been doing stakeholder outreach, community engagement and communication work since 2002 and the tone over the past, say, 12 to 18 months feels different to me. While the responses to our parking-related posts on social media have been particularly acute for me personally because I care deeply about our community and this program we are building, I have also heard from many colleagues and friends in other, diverse fields (events, public information, public health, business associations, recreation) that they are struggling as well. Nearly every message posted brings with it a few hyperbolic attacks and the whole post quickly spirals out of control.

At what point do we stop posting information on social media that (we think!) is helpful to those we are trying to serve?

Social media is ubiquitous and for years, it has served a vital role in helping parking programs communicate with their stakeholders in fast, visual, and interactive ways. However for many, social media has always been a double-edged sword. When does providing answers or offering assistance to an angry customer move from being viewed as responsive to antagonistic? And depending on what platform you use, are your customers or stakeholders really there or are you just fanning the flames under your own feet?

While many of these questions may seem rhetorical, they are ones that anyone currently engaged in any sort of social media outreach or strategy should actively consider. Is the value proposition social media once brought still there, or is it something we feel that we “need to do” to check that box in our outreach strategy? The answers to all of these questions will depend on your town, university, airport, business, or campus; however for us, the decision to move away from social media temporarily has allowed us to focus more time on other, more meaningful strategies. It has also allowed us to take a step back and realize the damage that we may have been doing to ourselves by continuing to remind folks (with our clever graphics and helpful tips) that they absolutely hate what we are doing.

While I am sure we’ll revisit our decision to take a break from social media at some point in the future, for now, you can find me at a table near the farmers’ market, engaging with our residents and visitors in meaningful ways that build community instead of tearing it down. And you know what? I think Mickey would be proud.

Vanessa Solesbee, CAPP, CCTM, is parking & transit manager with the Town of Estes Park, Colo.