The newest face of Raleigh’s city government, complete with nose ring, tattoos and a half-shaved head, is that of Eleanor Hawthorne, recently hired as the city’s first social media manager.
Hawthorne has two degrees from N.C. State, three years of marketing and communication experience, and – even at 26 – can relate to almost any of Raleigh’s 450,000 residents, city officials say.
“Part of what makes her successful is that she’s true to who she is – someone who’s likable and smart, someone who cares about Raleigh and has never met a stranger,” said Damien Graham, Raleigh’s communications director.
Hawthorne’s hiring represents not just a more coordinated effort to engage Raleigh residents and customers online, but a change of philosophy in the public affairs office and City Hall. City leaders have placed higher priority on communicating with residents, the media and even each other.
The city created the social media manager position so that Raleigh could respond to questions and comments more quickly, said Graham, who hired Hawthorne. Before that, various accounts were managed by a team of employees who have other obligations, he said. As social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter grow in popularity, more residents and visitors are using them to engage with the city government.
The number of people following Raleigh’s main Facebook and Twitter accounts grew roughly 8 percent, respectively, in 2015. The city now has 3,700 Facebook fans and 37,000 Twitter followers.
“Social media in the modern environment is a very powerful tool, and it’s our responsibility as local governments to figure out the best tools we can use to communicate and engage with the public,” said Ruffin Hall, Raleigh’s city manager.
Graham knew Hawthorne from their time working at Triangle Transit, now known as GoTriangle. But she didn’t report to him, he said. Graham said he picked Hawthorne, who will make $50,000 a year, out of 300 applicants because of her experience and personality.
“She has enough savvy to know when to interject humor and when to be empathetic to a challenge,” he said.
Just as Raleigh has moved away from its sometimes image as a staid, families-first town, Hawthorne strays from previous generations of city employees.
She likes to relax at her downtown Raleigh apartment with a Belgian beer or whiskey while watching “trash TV” such as The Bachelor.
When she’s feeling artsy, she heads to the craft center at N.C. State to make pottery.
And when she needs an escape, Hawthorne hops on her motorcycle and rides around town with a local biker club.
A culture change
The turnaround in Raleigh’s communications started in 2013 when the City Council hired Hall to replace Russell Allen as city manager, Mayor Nancy McFarlane said.
“The emphasis on communications was a big piece of hiring Ruffin,” she said.
“The city’s changing really, really rapidly, which makes the need for better communication even more important,” McFarlane continued. “We wanted to see those tools (social media platforms) better utilized.”
Shortly after Hall came aboard, a communications consultant evaluated the city’s practices and reported Raleigh needed to improve its social media presence, coordination with reporters and promotions of the city’s brand or personality.
Hall said changes accelerated after he hired Graham to replace Jayne Kirkpatrick, Raleigh’s former public affairs director who retired in Feb. 2015.
Graham hired Hawthorne in December, launched the monthly YouTube show “A Few Minutes with the Mayor” in January and recently got approval for a monthly music show called “Oak City Sessions,” which will start airing online and on Raleigh Television Network sometime in March.
If Raleigh leaders fund a rebranding effort this year, which they may, Graham is expected to lead that project too. The most important part of that process will be connecting with people online and in the community to talk about Raleigh’s character and reputation, he said.
“What I’m visualizing is six months to a year of engagement, working internally and externally to figure out the values of our city to develop a brand we want to use for years,” Graham said.
Hawthorne, in the meantime, has a lot to do as well.
It’s her job to disperse news and address concerns all while showing personality in online community that can be hostile at times.
She likes the way the Wake County Public School System runs its Twitter account and hopes to emulate it.
Hawthorne is also charged with teaching others how to use social media. Raleigh’s 18 departments have 48 separate accounts on everything from Facebook to Pinterest – and some city employees aren’t sure what to do when residents present a problem or offer criticism. Some consolidation may even be in order, she said.
“They might want a Twitter for their department,” she said. “I say, ‘OK, are you ready to deal with something if it comes up while you’re in church?’”
And some in City Hall need help understanding Internet lingo.
“I think the funniest time was when someone asked me what ‘on fleek’ means,” Hawthorne said with a laugh.
“On fleek” is mostly used by young people to compliment someone for how they appear or dress, she said. As in, someone might say the hair of Raleigh’s social media manager is on fleek.