Oneonta Mayor Richard Phillips’ video posts goofing around about local government and highlighting the town have attracted online fans and, in some cases, real life visitors.
Known for trendy dances and lip-syncing, TikTok may not be the first pick for most local government officials when it comes to reaching people on social media. But it’s proving to be a highly effective platform for putting a spotlight on one small Alabama community located in the Appalachian foothills. That city, Oneonta, has only about 7,000 residents, but its official TikTok page has more than 117,000 followers.
That’s thanks in part to Mayor Richard Phillips' creativity and office antics—like catching the local police chief off guard, asking if his department has a tank the mayor can take for a spin. A former graphic designer and practicing attorney, Phillips has turned to the platform to engage with local residents and those outside of his city as well. He’s garnered enough attention with his posts that it’s getting him recognized out of state. “I was at a restaurant in Mississippi one time coming back from New Orleans, and somebody stopped me. They were like, ‘Are you that guy? The mayor that's on TikTok?’” he recalled in a recent interview with Route Fifty.
Launched in 2016, TikTok has quickly grown to be one of the most popular social media platforms in the world—particularly among younger people. With more than a billion active monthly users, it has joined the ranks of Facebook and Instagram. (The platform, which is owned by a Chinese company, has also drawn scrutiny over potential data privacy and national security concerns.)
Oneonta, which is about 40 miles northeast of Birmingham, is the seat of Blount County, and Phillips grew up in the area. Route Fifty talked with the mayor about how TikTok has allowed him to share what he loves about his city and how other local officials can do the same.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When and why did you create the city’s TikTok page?
When I was elected mayor in 2020, I had served on the city council for four years prior, and Oneonta just didn't have a social media presence at all. We had a Facebook page, but it was never updated. And I know I don't have to explain to you how necessary and how effective social media is when you're trying to spread the word about something.
As a municipality, we always have things going on, [whether it’s] announcing the council meeting, or announcing a special event that we're hosting, or if it's just an emergency update about something that's happened in the community. Social media is just really effective. So I kind of got all of our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram up and running.
And you know, there was TikTok, and it was very much becoming the most popular of the social media platforms. So I thought, how could we use TikTok in a way to engage people? I didn't want to do those boring [videos], like, ‘Hi, my name is Richard Phillips, I’m the mayor, and this is the office where I am.’ Because nobody wants to watch that. That's not what people watch TikTok for, right?
And I was sitting there thinking, you know, what can I do on TikTok, that's not boring, but would make people laugh, and kind of give a little bit of humanity and personalization to City Hall, so it's not [just] the place you think of as where you go to pay a parking ticket, right?
I came up with this thought of, I would start a TikTok page, and I would kind of go around and just mess with some of the City Hall employees and, you know, do jokes and little pranks and just have fun with it. It doesn't cost us anything, we don't have to spend any taxpayer money. And it doesn't really take away from anybody's job, because a TikTok video will take, you know, 30 seconds to do. And it just caught on and they got really popular.
Social media is a wonderful tool when it's used appropriately [for] municipalities, particularly smaller municipalities, like Oneonta, where you don't always have the financial means to pay for a big marketing campaign. All you have to do is put a little bit of thought into it. And you can really make it something that's unique and special to your community. You can get a lot of feedback and a lot of interaction with your constituents. It's just been very positive for us.
@cityofoneonta Is it a bad idea? Mayor shenanigans. #oneontaal #oneonta #cityofoneonta #alabama #justhavingfun ♬ original sound - City of Oneonta, Alabama
Can you talk a bit more about how popular the page has become?
We had several viral posts, and people really reacted to it positively. And, you know, we've had people just show up at City Hall, and they've driven from other states, just to see Oneonta and meet me, because they saw our TikToks. We've had people from as far away as Virginia. I've had multiple city clerks from places in Kansas and Oklahoma and Texas call and ask, “We want to start a TikTok, how do we do it?”
@cityofoneonta Mayor Shenanigans - The Full Tank #oneontaal #justhavingfun #cityofoneonta #alabama ♬ original sound - City of Oneonta, Alabama
You currently have over 117,000 TikTok followers, but there are only about 7,000 residents in Oneonta. Is it strange to be making content for so many people outside of the city?
It is, but you know, it's doing exactly what I wanted it to do. Because I'm engaging with all these people that aren't from Oneonta. [A] man in Minnesota, for example, might be following Oneonta because he thinks it's funny. And so he might be like, “You know what, I'm gonna have to go to Atlanta to visit my cousin next summer, I'm gonna take a day trip over to Oneonta.” Having that number of people following us really tells me that we're doing it right. Because people are interested and people are staying interested.
What has the community’s response to the TikToks been like?
People absolutely love it. Just the other day actually, I was volunteering at a marching festival that we hosted in Oneonta and a group of kids came up and I could hear them coming up behind me. And they were like, “You.” “No, you!” “You ask him.” And finally one of them got brave enough. And they were like, ‘Will you make a TikTok with us?” And I was like, “Yes, of course.” So people all the time are asking if they can be in one of my TikToks, or if I'll make one with them.
There are some darker sides of social media, so it’s cool to hear that TikTok has fostered some positive, real-world connections for you and the city.
One of the things that I want to do with all of our social media platforms is to make it an example of how it can be used for good. Because there is so much negativity on social media. So I always want to keep it positive and informative.
How much time does it take you to make TikToks?
I don't spend a lot of time, just because I don't want to spend a lot of time on it. Because I mean, I actually do have a job. I don't want anyone to ever feel like, ‘oh my gosh, all the mayor does is sit in his office and do TikTok,’ because that is not the case.
But if there's something that's trending, or something that just pops up in my head, a lot of times, I'll make the video and then I'll piece it together and post it when I'm at home. It really doesn't take a lot of time.
The part that takes the longest, is when you have to, like, piece the video together and make sure that it's set with the music. I'm a perfectionist, so I have to make sure it’s just right, but I do all that in my personal time.
What kind of videos do you most enjoy making?
Well, there's two kinds. I like being able to make funny videos, but that also are able to highlight my community. Just this past weekend, I did this whole dance. And I'm 40 years old and it almost killed me—I was very sore. But I did this dance, and I did it in different places all throughout our town. And so, like, the background is always something to do with Oneonta. So I love doing stuff like that. But I would have to say my favorite thing is being able to mess around with the employees.
@cityofoneonta My brain cells Would you believe this was my first try? #oneontaal #smalltown #wegotmoves ♬ original sound - City of Oneonta, Alabama
What advice do you have for other local officials who might be interested in starting a TikTok account?
The most important thing about TikTok is that you have to engage the person because you've got about 30 seconds to get their attention. If they're not interested in what your video is, then they're just going to keep scrolling. So what I try to do is I try to keep up with what the trends are on TikTok. They have all these dances, or they’ll have a particular song that's really popular that people are using, and that actually gets you more views because TikTok likes for you to use those types of things. And so I'll pay attention to that. And, you know, I'll also save videos that I think are fun, or that made me laugh.
And I'll sit down and I'll think, you know, how can I kind of do the same thing, but from a city government perspective. And so that's really what I do. I really just kind of take my cues from what's popular on TikTok, and what I think people would engage in and, you know, I try to keep it age neutral. I'm not really trying to target younger audiences, I want to make it funny and fun for everybody. Because I want people of all ages, races, genders to come and visit Oneonta because we're fun.
Molly Bolan is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.