Originally posted at Voice of San Diego.
By Randy Dotinga.

The Twitter account known as @SanDiegoCounty is quite the know-it-all.

Within just the past few days, it’s offered tips on safe turkey preparation, information about the danger of ticks and details about openings on the San Diego County Grand Jury. All that plus an alert about an armed-and-dangerous fugitive, a link to a story about tattoo removal for troubled kids, a rundown of Thanksgiving government-office closures and more.

As of Wednesday, @SanDiegoCounty had 16,536 followers, well beyond the numbers for the Twitter accounts for Los Angeles, Orange, Sacramento and Santa Clara counties. (San Francisco, which is both a city and a county, has more at 24,475.)

That’s not all. The Twitter feed is pretty engaging as government social media accounts go, full of tweets written conversational and even fun language, especially in regard to issues regarding pets:

We named it one of the best local government Twitter accounts earlier this year.

It costs nothing to own a Twitter account, but local taxpayers pay for the public employees who keep the tweets flowing at @SanDiegoCounty. They work for the county’s communications department, which spends $3 million each year on public relations, media outreach and outreach to the county’s 16,000 employees.

Among the department’s projects is the San Diego County News Center, a website that looks like a mainstream online news outlet, uses a “.com” address instead of “.gov,” and offers a variety of news stories about the county.

It might take a while for visitors to figure out that it’s a government-run website full of positive news stories. (CityBeat called the site a “propaganda machine, while U-T San Diego reported that visitors “will find a pattern of coverage portraying the county as essentially faultless.”)

I asked Michael Workman, the former TV newsman who runs the communications department, about the Twitter account and his ongoing mission to produce something other than a traditional press release.

How have you changed how the county communicates?

Years ago, I got tired of pumping out press release after press release.

I’m looking at all the things we do that people don’t know about, things that are helpful to people, and I’m depending on a middle man in the media — my press release going to you or your boss and you finding it interesting enough to pursue.

We needed to change the paradigm, find another way to communicate. So we came up with the idea of the County News Center.

We’ve taken some heat over it, but the intent was present news about the county that we’re doing ourselves: To take a press release and make it a story instead of a story idea.

How does social media like Twitter fit in?

As we were doing all this and launching it, social media became a big deal.

For the most part we use it to push people to our stories. But they’re also constant daily and seasonal reminders, since we can directly talk to the public. We might offer tips in regard to your poultry being outside too long or getting too hit. It’s a perfect platform for that.

Who runs the Twitter feed?

My entire department participates in the whole thing. We have a story meeting every Monday and talk about what’s coming up at the county, how we need to cover it or do we cover it. Part of the discussion is how we use social media to support that.

How big is your department overall?

We have 22 employees total. Of those, 11 handle our social media and write or otherwise produce product for County News Center and InSite, an internal website for our 16,000-plus employees. Those 11 also do other things, including daily media calls and requests, Public Records Act research and management, internal messaging and script-writing.

The others are varied. I have a couple graphic artists, a couple web guys and support staff.

Do you compare your social media numbers to other government agencies?

We’re not in a race with anybody. It’s not a competition. I just want to be effective.

What kind of difference is the Twitter account making?

When we first started, County Supervisor Ron Roberts had a lawn mower giveaway. You could bring in a gas lawn mower and get an electric lawn mower to take its place for $50 or $100.

We could track the tweets about it. At the time, our tweet went out to 5,000 people. One lady retweeted our tweet and sent it to 3,400 of her followers, and they sent it out to another 17,000. That’s the beauty of Twitter: It has the potential to allow people to communicate exponentially.

Will you use the Twitter feed when disaster hits?

We’ll rely on it in an emergency.

Twitter is going to be important even if the power goes out here. If we can find way to get tweets out, maybe your relatives in Idaho can follow us and tell you what we sent out.

Those are the kinds of things we’re looking at. We want to get the information out.

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