Weiss said it helped that the agency’s posts displayed the government’s seal so citizens knew the information came from an authoritative source. However, that wasn’t foolproof.

“You can have the seals, but people imitate them,” Weiss said. “There was a phony, phantom state police site on Facebook that nobody in state government knew about. By the time we figured it out, they already had a couple hundred friends on that site, and people thought it was real information from the state police.”

Weiss said orchestrating the state’s social network response to H1N1 was challenging. Michigan intends to improve the process with a newly created governance board for government.

“It has people from each agency,” Weiss said, “and they get together to talk about things like how many Twitter sites we should have. How many sites do we have? Should we have one from each campground or just one for the whole Department of Natural Resources? Who is going to monitor the content every day? Who is going to be the person who pulls stuff down when it’s

inappropriate, or when an employee puts something up there they shouldn’t?”

Public information professionals who are looking to formalize their social media policies may want to look at the policy California published on the Web in February 2010. The document puts stringent controls on who may post and requires that all communications are run through public information officers. Interestingly one of the people in state government who didn’t bother with this process was the official who helped start the government social media trend — Schwarzenegger. If you doubt that, ask Aaron McLear, his former press secretary.

“It doesn’t really work if you have people going through drafts and approval processes,” McLear said. “A lot of times I found out what he tweeted from reporters.

“I was trying to manage the news cycle for him on a daily basis, and sometimes the things he put out on Twitter weren’t necessarily in line with what the message of the day was, but that’s the beauty of it,” McLear said. “That’s why it’s so unencumbered. It’s just him putting out there what he wants to tell people.”

Schwarzenegger maintained his social media accounts as two-way communication, frequently answering questions from voters and sometimes low-level employees.

“There was a state worker who followed him on Twitter who said we had a bunch of cars sitting around that we weren’t using. The governor looked into it and said, ‘You’re right,’” McLear said. “We had a big garage sale, and got rid of cars and a bunch of other stuff we weren’t using.” 

Andy Opsahl  |  Features Editor