Chuck Emmert is easy to spot on the streets of Phoenix.
The 62-year-old spends at least part of his days riding his small, fold-up bike through the neighborhoods and commercial districts of Phoenix looking for the perfect photo.
Camelback Mountain at sunset. Clouds speckling the sky above downtown. A mosaic tile display at a light rail station.
He posts them to his employer’s Instagram account — which has become one of the most popular Instagram accounts in the Valley.
Here’s the twist: His employer is Phoenix.
Emmert is technically a bureaucrat who works for the government. But he considers himself an artist who uses his talents to make government less stuffy and more relatable to residents.
So far, it’s working. The Phoenix account has nearly 65,000 followers and is adding an average of 300 followers per week.
For comparison, similarly-sized Houston and Philadelphia have 27,000 and 20,700 Instagram followers respectively.
Phoenix’s closest municipal Instagram competitor in the metro area is Gilbert, with 28,000 followers. Most of the rest of the Valley cities have between 1,500 and 8,500 followers, including tourist hot spots Scottsdale and Tempe.
Emmert and his social media team at the city say they’ve found social success by giving their residents what they want: Beautiful desert landscapes, iconic buildings and historic photos of the city.
“People just really like to engage with all the things that makes Phoenix great,” Emmert said.
It’s not just pretty pictures and funny throwbacks, though. The city sees its Instagram account as an opportunity to rope in people who don’t usually think much about local government and encourage them to check out other, more educational resources, like the city’s website.
“Here’s one place where we can just be like real people, not be geeky government,” said Matt Hamada, the Phoenix public information officer who oversees all of the city’s social media accounts.
‘That’s what people are talking about’
On a recent Friday morning, Hamada and Emmert were huddled in their boss’ office.
Julie Watters, the city’s communications director, leads a team of public information officers who work with reporters and create their own content that is distributed to Phoenix residents through the city’s TV station, website and social media accounts.
The three were discussing the “Dolly Parton challenge,” which was going viral at the time, and whether there was a way for the city’s social media account to participate. People who participated in the challenge posted four photos of themselves: One they’d post on the more business networking-related social media site Linkedin, one they’d post on Facebook, one they’d post on Instagram and one they’d post on the dating site Tinder.
It’s part of Watters’ “TWPATA” philosophy: “That’s what people are talking about.”
Watters, Emmert and Hamada all worked in television news before shifting to city government. Watters said they haven’t lost their news mindsets, which pushes them to make sure the city is part of trending conversations.
“We have to be relevant and a part of the community conversation,” Watters said. “It’s really important that we engage in a modern way with our residents and with the next generation of residents.”
Emmert said 63% of Phoenix’s Instagram followers are in the 25-44 age range, which skews younger than the city’s other social media accounts.
The city’s Instagram success is a sign of the city’s ability to meet people where they’re at, Watters said. Instead of posting photos of groundbreakings or notices of city council meetings, the city is giving people what they want on Instagram: Glimpses of life in the nation’s fifith largest city.
Once they have them hooked, they can ease them into participating in more traditional city business, she said.
Welcome to Phoenix sign
Emmert doesn’t fit the traditional Instagram influencer demographic — He’s 62 and he spent most of his career working for a TV station.
But he’s totally sold on Instagram and its impact.
Creating content for the Instagram account isn’t his only responsibility: He still has his traditional role of creating educational content for employees and residents. But he said he likes having a “little extra thing” to keep his artistic side satisfied.
“We have to feed the beast and we have to keep producing, but we also have a creative side and it comes out that way. That’s what’s really special about it,” Emmert said.
The city’s most popular Instagram post to date is a photo of a “Welcome to Phoenix” sign from 1972. The population figure on the sign is 620,000.
After the post took off, the city’s visual team went out to try to determine the location of the sign and post a modern-day photo of the area.
“That was a little tricky because there’s a lot of development now so you could only kind of see pockets of the mountains through the trees and buildings,” Emmert said.
Emmert’s favorite post changes all the time, he said. He loves to watch the likes pour in on photos he posts. If 100 or 200 likes come within the first 30 minutes, you know it’s good, he said.
He said when he worked in TV, he could see ratings for shows, but he had no way to know how people were reacting to his individual work.
“But with the Instagram platform or any social media, you can see exactly how things are going. Not only the likes, but the comments as well. It’s just instant feedback from our residents like that. It’s incredible,” Emmert said.
He welcomes people to follow along with his photographic journey around Phoenix by following the city’s Instagram handle: cityofphoenixaz.
If you want to say hi, mention Emmert in the comments — he reads them all.
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