David Keller and Monika Medina 2017-03-09 11:14:26
“Out West, whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting over,” goes the famous line often attributed to Mark Twain. So in the summer of 2016 when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California celebrated “Turning on the Tap: 75 Years of Water Delivery to Southern California,” the public water district that serves 19 million people went to great lengths to develop an inclusive and informative event about its building of the Colorado River Aqueduct (CRA), one of the nation’s engineering marvels. The idea was to make people aware of where their water comes from while combining the rich history of the huge project with the lesser known people behind it. Toward that end, in early fall 2015, Metropolitan’s external affairs, records, and graphics teams worked together to produce an exhibit and event featuring California author and historian Kevin Starr. To spread the word, we launched a unique Twitter campaign called “Engineering a Marvel: A Collection of Diverse Voices,” which told the stories of the men and women involved in the construction of the aqueduct through their own voices. This social media task was new for most of us, and after collaborating with Chris Hamawi, program manager for media affairs, and Monika Medina, Metropolitan’s public affairs representative in charge of social media, we developed a plan to feature the stories of six historical figures over the course of three months. Developing Personas First we selected representative people closely associated with the CRA: master mechanic Alfred “Al” Preston; assistant engineer and amateur photographer Walter Preston (no relation); Contractors’ General Hospital nurse Betty Runyen; school teachers at construction camps; W. B. Mathews, former Los Angeles Department of Water and Power public utility lawyer who successfully negotiated with the federal government, neighboring states, and water agencies; and publicist and special projects ace Don Kinsey. Then, taking on their personas, we developed tweets based on facts and real events as if these people were alive today, going about their daily work and live-tweeting the events of their times. The Twitter campaign highlighted the power of social media to attract new viewers. After Metropolitan began sending its Walter Preston tweets, Preston’s grandson found the posts and shared them with extended family and friends. The result was that he, along with Preston’s widow and other family members, attended the celebration and exhibit, which showcased more photographs of Walter Preston. Tweets from Al Preston and Betty Runyen proved popular as well. Al Preston’s tweets were followed by some of Metropolitan’s retirees and current employees based near the Colorado River who knew him and his many mechanical achievements. The Runyen tweets brought feedback from those interested in the development of managed healthcare, which Contractor’s General Hospital and Metropolitan helped to pioneer in the early twentieth century. Tying Social Media to Exhibits The fast-moving Twitter campaign had your friendly archivist (now “thrilled archivist” since records which had been painstakingly conserved and cataloged for years were now actually being used) hustling to supply photographs and quotes. Midway through the research phase, another public affairs representative, Thair Peterson, began enthusiastically researching in a hitherto unused record series for details to complement our profile subjects and authenticate their tweets. In poring over twenty-six boxes of historical Metropolitan press clippings from 1931 to 1947, Peterson uncovered so much information on CRA publicist Don Kinsey that tweets from Kinsey were extended for an additional week. The photograph with which we ended Kinsey’s tweets we found at the Gene Camp Museum, near the Colorado River, after making a reconnaissance trip to the museum to borrow photographs and artifacts for the exhibit. I recognized Kinsey and his impish grin and knew it would work in the exhibit and Twitter campaign. The photo depicted a celebration in the San Jacinto Tunnel portion of the CRA. Another team member, Debra Sass, came up with the brilliant idea to tie in the ribbons in the photograph to the exhibit and made “Aqueduct Builder” ribbons which served as exhibit passes for guests. Social Media “For the Win” Direct hits for the more than 300 tweets used in the Twitter campaign are at 58,000, surpassing our expectations. The campaign was also accessed through Metropolitan’s main website, http://www.mwdh2o.com/WhoWeAre/History/75years, in which there have been 1.2 million impressions. Among those who followed the Twitter campaign were prominent historians, authors such as John Fleck (Water Is for Fighting Over, forthcoming), water agencies, and relatives of original CRA workers. The Twitter initiative not only brought to life the historic engineering and construction of this great project, but also the people behind it. Seeing the success of the campaign after many hours and hard work, we’re certain that any such future event will definitely include a social media component.
Published by Society of American Archivists. View All Articles.
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