San Gabriel City , United States

On Your Mark, Get Set, Weibo!

City of San Gabriel

September 14, 2016

Using social media and cross-cultural ICT to connect across diverse communities

Smart cities look beyond Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat to uncover online networks the community is using. They meet them in those spaces.san-gabriel-weibo-display

Social media use has become an important part of any city government’s communication toolkit. From broadcasting to connecting and engaging directly with residents, it’s convenient and impactful. It’s also expected. What do you do when your community is diverse and using a variety social media tools and channels? Making an effort to understand social media diversity can transform the way a city connects with residents. In the San Gabriel Valley, that effort has improved civic outreach with Chinese-speaking communities.

San Gabriel Valley’s Chinese-speaking community

An ethnically diverse region, San Gabriel Valley was once comprise primarily of White and Latino residents. Asian residents, represented mainly by Chinese immigrants, recently became a majority in a number of cities in the San Gabriel Valley. However, they remained disconnected from the broader community and city institutions.

Siye “Walter” Yu recognized this inclusion issue and penned a simple call to action in 2013: “Five ways organizations could engage Chinese immigrants in the San Gabriel Valley.” Perhaps he thought it would catch the eye of a few people. Maybe it would drive some outreach and increase focus on Chinese-speaking residents in some neighbourhoods. He couldn’t have predicted it would go viral when it caught the eye of Alhambra Police Chief Mark Yokoyama. Yokoyama connected with Yu, and editors from the Alhambra Source, to see what the department could do. Near the end of the year, Alhambra Police opened a Weibo account, a first in the U.S.

Alhambra Police partnered with Yu to run their account. Their foray into Weibo was an immediate hit. In the first week their follower count exceeded Facebook followers by five times. The impact went beyond social media vanity stats. Chinese language calls to the department increased by over 60% in the first year. And, it transformed the department’s relationship with the Chinese-speaking population.

According to Yokoyama, the sense of trust the police began building was the most important outcome. “We’re answering questions that have probably been on the minds of people for a long time. They just didn’t know how to ask or who to ask. It tells me people have some sense of trust in at least asking the question of the police. That’s the outcome that I’ve most enjoyed.”

In 2015, they opened an account on WeChat, a popular Chinese social and messaging network. Another success.

San Gabriel City moves onto Weibo

San Gabriel City noticed Alhambra’s success and joined Weibo in 2015, becoming the first city government in the U.S. on the network. They smartly hired Walter Yu to manage the account.

According to San Gabriel City Public Information Officer Lauren Gold, they’ve experienced success similar to the Alhambra police: “We could tell instantly that Weibo had fulfilled a strong need in the community. A day after the official launch, we already had more than 2,000 followers – just about what we had on Facebook at the time, and we’d had our Facebook account for years.” More than great social media metrics, she says “the Weibo account helped us build a stronger connection with the Chinese-speaking community. It opened a line of communication to a group of residents that had never interacted with their city government before.”

Being strategic in their communications approach is essential. Echoing New York City’s Nisha Agarwal, Gold says “It’s not enough to merely translate materials into Chinese and try to distribute them through the same channels we use for our English communications. It is essential to reach out to these different groups through the channels they are already comfortable with, and in the spaces where they are already participating. We’ve started posting more information that new immigrants might want to know, and we have included information on how to get a translator for city services like police or code enforcement. We’re also able to use the account to appeal to overseas travelers, since tourism is a large industry in San Gabriel.”

Those secondary audiences are important. They became significant in Alhambra as well. As one reporter put it: “The Police Department joined Weibo to do police work, but it soon fell into a different role: explaining America.”

For San Gabriel City, that role cannot be underestimated. Investing in strategic communications helps create communities where all residents feel welcome and included.


The online effort has translated into offline success. In late 2015, San Gabriel held their first Dumpling & Beer Fest. Using Weibo as an outreach tool, the Fest was the most well-attended city event in recent memory, with an estimated 5,000 people filling the downtown. Significantly, attendance was very diverse, reflecting community demographics. Gold says it’s tangible evidence that their investment in Weibo has increased community engagement and interactions with Chinese-speaking residents.

San Gabriel is getting it right. Other U.S. cities have approached them to learn more about Weibo and how they could make it work in their community. For Gold the increased collaboration with other cities is rewarding. This year San Gabriel received the “Most Innovative” Award of Excellence in Communication from the California Association of Public Information Officials (CAPIO).

Next for San Gabriel city? WeChat, of course.

Making it Work for You:

  • Cities, like any organization seeking to connect with the public, need to analyze their audiences. Take the time to do the type of strategic research any marketing expert would recommend. What you find will ensure you have an informed strategy.
  • Online outreach and community engagement is important for city institutions. Like community spaces, online channels and networks are not English only.
  • Look beyond the typical social media channels and networks to discover niche online spaces where your community is active.
  • Go to where your audience already is, join them, engage them, use the technology that’s already working for them.

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