Karen Heller: Generating buzz the hard way

Jim Kenney's Twitter problems illustrate the unrealistic employment policies of Council. KRISTON J. BETHEL / Staff Photographer, file

Chances are you had a better week than Jim Kenney.

The veteran Democratic councilman found himself on a cover of the Philadelphia Daily News above the headline "Sucking on the Public Tweet," a "Socially Inept" report on how he spent nearly $29,000 of taxpayer money on a contract for a "social-media strategy," including the management of his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

"I, at 53 years old, do not have the facility," he told the Daily News about Twitter.

Thank heaven it was Holy Week, which meant Council wasn't in session because folks had to head back to their districts and dye eggs and stuff.

Kenney didn't read the Philly.com comments, 130 as of Friday. "I don't do that, because it's disgusting. It's the same 10 or 12 trolls," which suggests he's more familiar with many of our commenters than he professes.

Six Council members have full-time communications staffers, whose pay ranges from $39,000 to $60,000, plus $12,000 in annual benefits - Kenney provided a list. He believed he was saving the city money while "helping young people have a business and live in the city."

Most members have staffers issue their tweets, surprising given the tedious nature of hearings - most legislators are glued to their BlackBerries anyway - and their vast amount of paid time off.

Like the entire summer.

The 140-character limit is ideal for the direct, frequently profane nature of Philly banter, in which four characters often suffice.

Kenney has a staff of 10 and a $537,034 payroll, larger than those of most members because he hired two employees from the recently retired Anna C. Verna and Frank DiCicco.

As other entities cut costs and staff in these hard times, Philadelphia government remains a nepotism, friends-of-friends sinecure where jobs are eliminated only through attrition or neglect.

Pension and health-care costs for municipal employees are the cement shoes of the city budget, our taxes benefiting them at the cost of services and growth, and resulting in higher taxes for us.

Council is, to paraphrase New York pol Jimmy McMillan, too damn large (17 members) and too damn high (about $15 million).

The GOP-controlled Pennsylvania House took a step in the right direction when it voted to shrink the General Assembly by 50 legislators from a preposterous, untenable 203. The 50-member Senate has yet to vote to reduce itself by a dozen.

Then again, that reduction wouldn't go into effect for an entire decade, when, given Harrisburg's clockwork party shifts, Democrats could be in charge and forced to reduce their numbers.

The truth is Kenney doesn't need communications help. He's one of the most accessible members of Council. "I talk to everybody. I know the rules of engagement."

You're never at a loss as to how he feels. His face tends to speak for him, especially during moments of pique, when, as I've noted before, the color approximates the "severe" ranking on the Homeland Security chart.

Philadelphia is so terribly small at times - really, it's hyperlocal - why would you need a more global approach?

City Council is the opposite of modern. It's not as if all the bike-riding youngsters are musing, "Gee, I wonder what's up with the bros on Property and Public Works."

Kenney wasn't helped when his social-media strategist, Matthew Ray, told the Daily News, "I think everyone knows $28,000 isn't a huge amount."

Uh, no. Especially when it's our money.

As Kenney told me: "He doesn't know how to deal with the press. I know how to deal the press."

Which is another problem right there. Is there a limit of only one skill per person?

In all likelihood, Kenney said, Council President Darrell Clarke "is not going to renew the social-media contract when it comes up in June." Really, Kenney ought to hire a young intern, someone who can tweet, Facebook, and doesn't think $28,000 is pocket change. And he should learn to tweet.

Kenney's social-media strategy seemed to backfire but ended up working better than anything he got from the media firm.

Before last week, @JimFKenney had about 1,000 followers. As of Friday, that number had almost doubled.

When you search Jim Kenney, Twitter, and Philadelphia, up pop 300,000 results on Google.

He's the buzz of the Internet.


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or follow @kheller on Twitter.