This Should Be Illegal: D.C. government agency uses social media to reach students

by Shannon Paul on August 25, 2008


Departments of local governments aren’t usually thought of as early adopters when it comes to technology and social media, but one Washington, D.C. public department is hoping to use its new blog, Facebook and Twitter to build relationships with area university students to educate them about their rights to safe living conditions in off-campus housing.

This October will mark the fourth year since the preventable death of a 21-year old Georgetown University student who died in an apartment fire as a result of several violations to the district’s housing codes. Since D.C. has a large concentration of colleges and universities, students often rent properties that are dangerous, overpopulated and in serious violation of the District’s housing codes.

This Should Be Illegal is the name of a new blog that serves as the online home of the Washington, D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs’ (DCRA) new student outreach program designed to raise awareness about students’ rights to safe off-campus housing.

To learn more about the department’s decision to use social media to reach students in a hyper-local area, I interviewed Mike Rupert, communications director for the DCRA.

Q: What is the goal of the D.C. Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) social media outreach with

Mike Rupert: The goal of is to ensure all off-campus housing in the District of Columbia is licensed and has received a recent city safety inspection.

Q: Who exactly are you trying to reach with

Mike Rupert: The estimated 10,000 college students who are living off-campus in the District. The campaign has two tiers of schools this year, with the first being Georgetown University, George Washington University, Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia. All have an average of 35 percent of their undergraduates living off-campus. The second tier is American University, Catholic University and Gallaudet University – these schools have 10-15 percent of their students living off-campus.

The plan is to form relationships with the students and earn their trust while emphasizing our key message of safety, safety, safety.

Q: How are you working to promote the site?

Mike Rupert: I began by asking a few of the most popular local news blogs and mainstream media for advice. The D.C.-focused blog, DCist and members of the local media provided some tips and also offered to post about the effort.

Once the DCist post went up, we received more than 1,000 hits in the first 8 hours. The mainstream media reacted quickly as well. We also bought online and print ads in the student newspapers for George Washington University and Georgetown for one month, and print ads for Howard University and the University of the District of Columbia.

In terms of street-level outreach efforts, we purchased 5-foot wide commercial strength stencils and removable, environmentally safe spray chalk. We will hit all campuses and student-heavy neighborhoods beginning tomorrow and for the next two days as students hit campuses for the first day of school. The stencil says “Students: Is your Landlord Licensed?” in a very crisp and bright image. We also purchased branded recycled water bottles, magnets and t-shirts as giveaways along with short and sweet school-specific fliers with a call-to-action to visit the Web site.

Today, we officially launched with releases to all local media outlets announcing the first week’s numbers, which will be more than 3,000 hits and, more importantly, that 750 people already used our online database to see if their landlord is licensed. This has all happened before students have officially started classes. I will also start reaching out to popular student blogs as we track numbers over the next three to four weeks.

We have also enlisted students at each school to serve as ambassadors and spread the word through their campus networks.

Q: How did the idea evolve to use social media to raise awareness about off-campus living conditions in D.C.?

Mike Rupert: While the effort is nearly four years old, one of the biggest past challenges was breaking down the student vs. government barrier. Before, when inspectors went door-to-door to off-campus apartments, they were turned away from students more than 80 percent of the time.

When I did more research upon being hired earlier this year, I found that most students were under the impression they would either be kicked out of their home if code violations were found or that if their home was unlicensed, or that their landlord would know who ratted them out and they would either be kicked out or have their rent suddenly spike.

My boss, DCRA Director, Linda Argo was quick to recognize, and become enthusiastic about, the potential of social media to reach students directly. One of the great things about socialmedia is that a true conversation can happen on many levels.

There is the semi-formal government customer service conversation, the less formal public conversation, and in my mind the most important “background” or “off the record” conversation. This allows you to become “friends” with government, ask blunt questions and get real answers. There is an intimacy that will never exist in an informational brochure, a poster or a typical telephone “hotline.”

As a result of this effort, several people have contacted me directly in the last week to simply ask “No, for real. Will my landlord know I reported him?” To which I was able to respond directly with my name and my voice and provide the reassurance a customer service representative never could. Just like your friends, some things you want out on their Facebook wall or Twitter-feed; others are private. I don’t see a difference here as we are asking them to make a very personal decision and we should treat it as such and with same care as you would a friend in trouble.

We also provide information that the students can use to help themselves without ever contacting us directly. They can listen to the conversation and, in my mind, this is a positive in terms of reaching our goal.

Q: How did you use to convince others at the DCRA that social media outreach was the best plan?

Mike Rupert: My argument was simple: we cannot reach our target with a Web posting on our official government site and set up a booth at the back-to-school fair. That no longer works … and I’m not sure it ever did. We need to meet students, talk with students and earn the trust of students where they are – online.

We needed to emphasize the importance of what we are asking them to do. You can’t do that with a 45-second “elevator speech” while surrounded by hundreds of other agencies and groups seeking their attention. We may need to talk to them for a while and answer some questions to provide reassurance that we are truly here to help.

Q: How are you defining success for the project?

Mike Rupert: We are defining the success of the project by getting a large number of students to use the online database to research their own landlord and also by the number of students who request inspections or fire safety equipment.

Additionally, however, we are hoping that the links created through Facebook and Twitter can lead to multi-year relationships. While it may sound ridiculous, I think we can truly become friends with these students and stay connected throughout their college careers and beyond. I also envision the site becoming the go-to guide for student housing safety.

Q: How do you plan to measure the success of this project?

Mike Rupert: In terms of performance, the measurements are the straight numbers of database searches and also the number of inspections – both of which are easily tracked.

Again, I am also going to be actively conversing on the Facebook and Twitter networks to encourage an ongoing dialogue. However, some of the success may never be measured. If 5 percent of students who see our site ask their own landlords for smoke detectors or ask why their basement doesn’t have an exit, we have done our job.

Our outreach will surge this fall and again in the spring as students begin to sign leases for the Fall 2009 semester. So we’ll ramp up again with the message on their current housing and again before they decide where to live for following semester.

Q: The conventional wisdom suggests that social media isn’t appropriate to reach people in a hyper-local demographic. What made you think differently in this instance?

Mike Rupert: I think we are approaching our audience in a whole new way that will surprise them coming from a government regulatory agency. We also have an extremely specific and defined target audience all of which are nearly identical in terms of demographics, education, techn knowledge and location. We are also addressing a clear, specific problem with a clear, specific resolution.

Would this be appropriate to reach a specific neighborhood? Probably not. Would this work for an entire ward of the city? Probably not. The points of contact would have too varied to be effective and would cost considerably more than this initiative.

Students don’t really know what DCRA is. The agency’s full name, the D.C. Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs was purposely shielded our name slightly to create a much bigger door for students to enter. is less intimidating. I think by offering a service and the information online, with no strings attached, it lets them cross that barrier that challenged us before. I don’t think there is any more appropriate forum to reach students.

Q: Have you reached out to the area universities for help in this initiative? If so, how have they responded?

Mike Rupert: We have and the response has been great. We met with the Vice Presidents of two universities and spoke with the Deans of the others. Again, with the students vs. authority thing happening, we didn’t want to funnel the campaign through them. We wanted to approach students directly. This further supports our honest stance that this is an anonymous process and you aren’t being tracked; we only want you to be safe.

Q: Do you have any examples of unsafe living conditions or horror stories that you could share to help those outside the area understand the need to raise awareness?

Mike Rupert: The worst known incident is that of the 21-year old girl that died in an apartment fire almost four years ago, but there are several others.

It’s the stories that aren’t public or the hundreds of homes that are at severe risk of becoming a horror story that we are most worried about. Students living in a run-down old Mansion in the trendy DuPont Circle neighborhood recently had a wall cave-in on them. The house was infamous for its poor condition – and low rent – and was known endearingly as the “Demon House.”

Luckily no one was injured, but our greatest concern was that we never received any complaints about the property and it had never been licensed or inspected. If a ceiling has come down instead, the story could have ended much worse.

Another house installed a refrigerator in the only rear exit to a basement where four students were living. Again, we caught this before a tragedy occurred.

Many homes in the Howard University area still have bars on the windows that cannot be unlocked or removed. This is a huge safety risk.

Q: Why social media?

Mike Rupert: I think one of the pitfalls of governments and companies using social media is that they are not sincere. They tend to love the tools. But social media is not about the tools, it’s about consistency, responsiveness and content.

You can’t imagine how surprised students have been to receive a response at 11:30 p.m. Or, that they voice a concern and a post is up within hours. That is not the speed at which government traditionally works. Using social media allows us to respond and waft that flame of curiosity extremely quickly, because, as I remember, it can fade in young people very quickly.

Anyone 35 or 40 and under wants an answer, they want it online and they want it quickly. They also want to follow up with questions and not have to wait 24, 48 hours or a week to get a response. I think this campaign will be successful because it also gives the students power to research for themselves, respond when they feel comfortable, or never respond to us at all, while taking their safety in their own hands.

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August 27, 2008 Ari

Great interview and entry Shannon. The post is a bit long, but it’s an interesting look at how some people are “getting it” more than others — even folks in government. I loved his comment about how people under 40 want their answers, they want them online and they want them now. Absolutely right on target. Thanks for the effort!


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