Government Communications in the Magic City: Interview with Nannette Rodriguez

‘There is always breaking news on Friday after 3 o clock”’ said Nanette Rodriguez, half jokingly, half serious, during a Friday interview at her office in the City of Miami Beach where she has been leading communication efforts for almost two decades. As the now Director of Communications prepped for a day of possible issues ahead, she chatted enthusiastically with me, a Miami Beach resident, about the lessons she had learned to ensure the city can communicate effectively and its citizens and its employees, while earning the city several recognitions along the way: in 2011 the Miami Beach Twitter account was named by Code for America as one of the top three city accounts to follow just behind New York 311 and Minneapolis Snow Emergency. The City of Miami Beach products include MB magazine, MBTV (including online channel), and use of existing platforms with their YouTube channel, Flickr and Facebook page.

The passion of this native Floridian for her job is contagious as well as her interest for learning the latest trends in social media and ways to communicate.
Note: Interview has been edited for space.

How did you started in communications?
Let me go back in my childhood: when I was very young I used to write stories, and illustrate books. I was also very in tune with the news, current events and my favorite show was 60 Minutes. Here I was this child in second, third grade, watching 60 Minutes and writing fictitious stories and illustrating. I’ve always had a knack for the written word… Historically in our family, my father, my grandmother, my great grandfather, they were all photographers… All of those interests kind of intertwined in my interests, so when I went to college I first studied Art… I was an Art and Business major.

So you thought about that early on, to make money from your art? 
(Laughs) Early on I thought ‘you have to make money on what you like.’ I did go into Communications and graduated from the University of Miami and did a degree of Communications and Marketing. From there, while I was still in school, I was working for a cable company, working for the family business in the photos industry, then finally got a job on TV. I worked on WPBT, public television, for 10 years and got to get my hand on many different very creative jobs, did advertising campaigns, we did publicity with other media, doing national campaigns across the country on new programs, also working with the local news at the station… (That experience) actually became the perfect fit when I was asked to work in the city of Miami Beach.

So you’ve been with the City for about 20 years?
It will be 20 years in November.

What was your plan or vision then and how has it changed throughout the years?
Miami Beach was in the Madonna phase of Miami Beach, I guess you can say. The international film stars were here, Bird Cage had just premiered, it was the post Miami Vice (era), star studded, the clubs were coming of age, it was that type of Miami Beach. Government wise things were changing, things were moving forward… In my career in communications we started with the type writer (laughs)… Actually when I came to the city of Miami Beach I was used to using higher level tools (in my previous job)… When I got here we got a computer, but we did not have email! I was used to having email prior to that, I was like ‘oh my gosh, we are going back to the dark ages, but its ok, I’ve been there’ (laughs)… One of the first initiatives that I brought to the city was develop a website. Of course that took a couple of years in the coming, there were not a lot of people that actually knew how to develop websites at the time.
(…) We were actually one of the first few government stations that were doing original programming… We were also the first station to go live on the web via live web streaming. We were also the first station to do close captioning and do close captioning in Spanish.

Miami Beach has been a pioneer in many of these things. The city has also won awards such as the Savvy awards. Are there any other examples of awards the city has won?
As far of communications, there is a slew of awards that we have been awarded or recognized as top 10 of something: awards for our Florida Government Communicators Association, 3CMA which is the City-County Communications and Marketing Association awards, our magazine is finalist for an award again this year, some of our videos have won awards, we actually have submitted this year for the Emmys… It’s not just about the awards, it’s great to be recognized… If we are communicating the message effectively, if we have people talking about the result of that message… that to me is more of a result than someone giving you a gold star here, your trophy. No, I want to see results of our effort. To me, that is the award.

What is some advice you can share in terms of what governments may be doing wrong or share simple practices they can start doing?
I would not say they are doing it wrong. First of all they need to start using (social media); you need to be where the conversation is… How I explain it to many other government agencies is to remember the town square back in the 1700s when our pioneers would try to get information from town to town about American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, whatever important documentation needed to go out there. There was somebody on a horse that would ride from town to town and post something in the town square. Now everybody has a town square because everyone, well not everybody, but most people have a Facebook page. And your Facebook page has posts, it’s your bulletin board, it’s also your bulleting board where you can talk to other people and post on theirs but everybody sees it.
(…) Older generations, yeah, they still tune in to the 6 o’clock news because they know at 6 o clock they are going to receive that information. But even the older generation is now on social media. We see our demographics that are following us on social media. We had My Space before had Facebook, that’s how long we’ve been on social media (laughs)… Of course the followers on there were very young. But when we went to Facebook and more people were clinging on to that, our demographics pretty much evened out.
Anybody on social media will tell you the older generation is the largest growing group on social media and that that is a reason why any government agency needs to be on there. It’s not a thing for the young anymore, its cross generational, and cross cultural as well because you can speak in many different languages on social media. We’ll put Spanish messages up as well and electronic news list serve which we have been doing since 1999 doing e-blasts and emails… I want to know what the next means of communicating is because we need to be there.

How does that translate to internal communications? Is there a similar approach to that?
On internal we do a lot of email plus internally we have our quarterly publication which actually we tried to do away with because we had our intranet, an internal website. Like we do with our community, we did an internal survey and it showed that the majority of our employees are not at a desk or an office. We have public works employees that are out on the street, we have parks and recreation employees that are out in our parks, we have firemen and firewomen and police officers that are all out on the streets. The majority of our work force, I would say only about 300, are on an office out of close to over 2500 employees. Although some of them were getting the printed version, we did away with it. (We thought) ‘now we have an internal website, we don’t need to print this anymore.’ Oh my goodness, everybody was like ‘what do you mean?’ We don’t have access to a computer and we love to see the pictures!
We had to totally reevaluate how we were doing things. Again, you can’t just depend on one type of communication because people not just receive but comprehend information in different ways.

I wanted to ask you about the branding of the city. It seems it has a pretty clear use and approach. Was it difficult to shape that branding?
Boy that was fun! We did that about 12, 13 years ago. After 99, we did the general obligation bond and with that bond we were going to be doing a lot of infrastructure work in our neighborhoods and public facilities. Between our Planning department and our City Manager’s office they thought ‘while we are doing that, maybe we should come up with a way finding, a signage branding for the city.’
(…) As part of that way finding signage identity, came our identity Miami Beach, the Beach being the book bold, the more emphasis on it and not separated, together, but the emphasis is on the Beach, not in Miami, because if you see them separate you may think ‘oh its Miami,’ ‘oh it’s the beach. ’ No, we are Miami BEACH. And on the celebration of our Art Deco and our MiMo (art style), the firm (we hired) came with a whole graphic identity package for the city.

Being a native Floridian, what do you think is the biggest misconception of the city?
We are not your typical beach city, although that’s the first thing a lot of people think of: South Beach, the nightclubs, the nightlife. But we are more than that…We are really a trendsetting community not just in the tourism industry and what you see in entertainment but in technology. A lot of the things that we do in our city as far as infrastructure, policing, fire; people from other communities, actually cities from around the world, come and visit us to see how we are starting to do things. It’s not just that glitz and glam that you see that everybody thinks of us as Miami Beach.

For professionals in communications, what do you think they should learn more about to further their careers?
Keep yourself relevant, don’t become a dinosaur. Communications is a constant learning profession, as many professions are. You always have to be on top of what the latest is and know it, learn it, become it, be in the know… If you don’t keep yourself relevant you are going to keep as old as a transistor radio.

Or a typewriter.
Or a typewriter (laughs).

Follow the City of Miami Beach on Twitter @MiamiBeachNews

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

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