A new look at the old sights

Carroll to raise online profile with YouTube video

July 21, 2008|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

On a recent summer afternoon, a camera crew slowly trekked up Westminster's Main Street.

The team stopped near the old post office, slipped down to the city's gray-stone-front Armory and stood on the sidewalk, capturing footage of local establishments, before ending at McDaniel College.

"I didn't do my makeup," one van passenger shouted to cameraman Kevin Carmack as he filmed street traffic.

"That's OK," he said, smiling. "We're not filming you."

Instead, it was the city's landmarks that consumed the crew's attention, sights to be featured in a YouTube video aimed at teaching about Carroll County, maybe drawing some visitors.

"It's a good chance for people to see what we love," said Chris Swam, the county's media production specialist. "We're not here to promote, but we are here to educate and inform and make people understand what our county is about."

Like Carroll, jurisdictions throughout Maryland and the nation are eyeing the available - and easily accessible - social media around them, contemplating ways to use popular networking and user-generated-content sites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook for sharing information.

"It's another way to reach people. ... We can't just rely on mail and phone calls anymore," said Vivian D. Laxton, a county spokeswoman. "We are just scratching the surface. ... There's all this technology that we're trying to figure out how we can use."

This month, the National Association of Counties plans to include a workshop on "engaging citizens via the new Internet social media" during its annual conference, according to Jim Philipps, a spokesman for the association. The issue is gaining more attention among the nation's counties, he added.

The seminar follows another held a few years ago on the use of Web sites and blogs, said Jane LeMaster, president of the National Association of County Information Officers, which is sponsoring the workshop.

"Ten years ago, who would have even been talking about a blog?" LeMaster said. "We've got a whole new generation of residents that we have to serve. ... We just want to make [county officials] aware of the avenues available to them."

The Maryland Association of Counties has themed its summer conference "Promoting County Government Through Technology," offering several sessions on new and social media, said Michael Sanderson, the association's legislative director, who described the subject as a "hot topic."

Some jurisdictions already have ventured into cyber territory, embracing opportunities to extend their reach.

Earlier this year, Virginia's Arlington County developed its own YouTube channel - the Arlington Virginia Network - an online extension of its government cable channel and Web site, said Diana Sun, the county's director of communications.

"For government, we never have enough time or money. Anything that's fun and easy and [that] lots of people can get to is great," Sun said, adding that people are tuning into the online channel. The local Police Department has also used YouTube to broadcast surveillance footage in hopes of catching suspects, she said.

While some might hesitate to enter the YouTube sphere because of the site's sillier offerings, Sun said, "there's millions of people going there - and you want to put your stuff where the people are."

Indeed, the online venues provide a forum - and some advantages - that is unlike more typical means of promotion, said Sam Rogers, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

"It's very effective. It's reaching audiences that are looking for things in that type of medium, and at the same time it's also a budget expander," Rogers said. "Some of these things just carry a level of credibility that one doesn't always get with pure advertising."

The association adopted a "YouTube-like approach" last summer with visitmybaltimore.com, Rogers said, which features hundreds of videos - many submitted by residents - offering various takes on the city.

The initiative has its own MySpace page and some videos on YouTube.

"It's just a way to showcase the city in a very personal, compelling way," said Rogers, adding that the association shares videos with bloggers and other social networks. "It's giving the viewer ... an up-close or personal look at Baltimore."

To Swam, a seven-minute video of Carroll's highlights seemed an ideal summer project, he said, particularly after discovering what a YouTube search for "Carroll County, Maryland," yielded.

Among the results: a nearly three-minute piece about Westminster's Cactus Willies Steak Buffet and Bakery, which the poster describes as lacking ambience, but as a place where "you can eat till your buttons pop off your pants."

"I don't feel that that really represents us necessarily," Swam said to the Board of Commissioners last month, to a roomful of laughter.

"You don't know what people are going to put up with their tag as 'Carroll County, Maryland,' " Swam later said, while out filming with Carmack and camerawoman Erin McCullin.

The YouTube video is also a means of dispelling certain ideas about the county where he grew up, he said. Swam remembers hiking the Appalachian Trail as a child, and running into some kids who immediately identified Carroll as "the armpit of Maryland."

"That created a stigma in my mind," Swam recalled. "I said to myself, 'You know what? I'm going to get rid of that.' "

arin.gencer@baltsun.com

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