It must have been a slow news day. That’s the only explanation Albert Lee can come up with for why his team’s greasy pizza boxes PSA went pseudo-viral last July.
After the 15-second video was tweeted by Philly311, where Lee is the social media and content manager, the story about how oil-slicked cardboard can ruin a batch of recycling was picked up by nearly all the city’s major news organizations. Headlines varied from blunt (“Why greasy pizza boxes can’t be recycled,” Philly.com) to explanatory (“City Campaign Looks To Make Recycling More Efficient,” CBS3), but for Lee the important thing was that the underlying message from the Streets Department ended up broadcast far and wide.
“Now there’s a certain caveat [about the videos we produce],” Lee said. “It’s, ‘Can we do something with more reach than that?’”
He and his three-member production team have been able to answer in the affirmative. See for example August’s Pennywise-inspired PSA about not tossing litter down storm drains. Released just as Stephen King’s “It” hit theaters, Philly311’s clean clown video got 54,000 views on Facebook and was picked up nationally by Inside Edition.
Wins like these — things that make city government seem more accessible and relatable to its citizens — are one of Lee’s favorite things about his job, where he acts as a coordinator.
“The video team gets all the credit for the ideas and concepts,” Lee said. “I just help them ride the current and make things flow. My job is to ensure we’re all about helping citizens and our video team takes it and runs with it.”
Three years after we first featured him on Billy Penn’s Who’s Next Communications list in his former job at the Independence Visitors Center, and a month after he landed on our Who’s Next Tourism list, we chatted with the 37-year-old Chinatown native for the fifth in our “catch-up” series with Who’s Next honorees.
What do you actually do, day to day? Is it just make videos?
There are two parts to my job. One is to oversee the creation of videos and other visual [assets] for social media.
The other is to make sure than when somebody calls [Philly311] asking about something — whether they heard it on TV or from the news or from the neighbor — that we have information to give out that the public can understand. A good example is when Villanova won the NCAA Championship and announced their parade route. Within 30 minutes of them announcing it on TV, we had tons of calls coming in, like, “How’s it going to affect traffic?” “When is it gonna happen?”
How do you get that kind of info?
Depending on what it is, I’ll work with the department liaison and ask, “What can we say about said subject that’s both understandable and digestible?” Because sometimes there’s terminology residents might not be familiar with, and also our agents aren’t experts — although the goal is that we can answer the question ourselves and not have to transfer the call.
What’s the accomplishment you’re most proud of at Philly311 so far?
I think that I’ve been able to take years of experience in digital communications and bring it to the city. I think it’s really important that as citizens find more and more ways to consume things digitally, that city government goes the same route. I like being part of a team that under the Kenney Administration has been able to get the message out using digital media. There’s a lot of value for government in adopting digital first tools. Because if you don’t adapt, you’re going to fail.
What’s a big challenge you overcame recently?
In [January] 2016 when Kenney had just taken office, that snowstorm happened, the fourth largest in Philly history. It was my first snowstorm [with Philly311], and I was like, “What happens?” Well, essential staff comes to work, and everybody is put in a room with all the other departments. I was worried about how many people would call asking about the snow, and savesies and other things, but having everyone in the same room, you can rely on having the right answers. On normal days, each department has its own agenda, but when you put everyone together, it’s amazing what you can do. It was really exciting to see.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
There’s two scenarios. One is — now, I have no doubt Mayor Kenney will win a second term, but if not, maybe I’d go to the federal [government]. But not unless we have someone I actually like as president. Because damned if I’d work for the federal government under this administration. Like, if the White House said, “Why don’t you come and do digital and social for the Trump Administration?” I would say no, no matter how much they paid me. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the eye.
The other is, if he wins, I stay in city government. I have super great respect for Sheila [Hess], but eventually a dream would be to be the City Representative. Imagine, a first-generation kid from Chinatown representing the city! I would find no honor greater. I’ve thought about it for years and years. I can say clearly that I have no dreams of running for public office whatsoever.
Anyone on our other Who’s Next lists you’d like to connect with?
Probably everyone on your chefs lists. My dad worked in the kitchen in Atlantic City for Trump, for his casinos, so I have a really deep appreciation of how hard that is. People I know revere it now, but growing up it wasn’t revered. And that shit’s hard! I respect the people who open restaurants now because of what my dad went through in those kitchens. And I’d love to go out and eat Chinese food with them at 2 in the morning. When I used to live with my older brother, a lot of his friends were chefs, and when I’d leave for work at 8 a.m., they’d just be heading to bed, leaving behind all these emtpy beer bottles and Chinese food containers in my kitchen. Good food is hard work.