In an ideal world, we want elected officials to feel comfortable about embracing social media yet balance that energy with the knowledge of how to properly administer their profiles.
As Twitter gains momentum as a platform for public-sector leaders, it’s more important than ever to take the opportunity to review best practices for use of social media by elected officials.
Many government agencies have an official social media policy in place, which is a good thing. But most of those policies don’t address what elected officials can do on social media. Elected officials have a role at your agency that is inherently different from regular staff. Your social media policy — or a separate one unique to electeds — should be very clear in social media guidance for elected officials. You want to be specific about what they can and can’t do, but still encourage their use of social media.
While there are many things elected officials shouldn’t do on social media, there are also a few that they can’t do. At least, if they don’t want to violate any laws.
Federal and state open meetings laws ensure that the actions of public bodies are conducted openly and citizens are given proper notice. If a quorum of any public body (usually three or more elected officials) merely comment on the same social media post, they could be in violation of open meeting laws. Make sure your electeds know this.
Does your agency have administrative or communications staff who maintain social media profiles for elected officials? While this is a common practice, it’s important to make sure everyone (staff and electeds) is aware of what needs to happen during campaign season.
Public employees can’t use, or be directed to use, official government profiles to campaign for candidates or for ballot measures. This is because government funds, including staff time, can’t be allocated toward pushing a particular candidate or referendum. There is a fine line between educating the public about various sides of a ballot issue and violating campaign laws, so always include your agency’s legal counsel when you’re crafting your policy language and training program.
Keep in mind that elected officials can be sued for blocking Twitter users. Our First Amendment protects freedom of speech from government interference, and governments need to be cautious about censoring an individual’s right to free speech. If a commissioner or council member blocks a social media user, it could be argued that they are blocking future speech made by that person. If your sheriff, for instance, deletes a negative comment, that could be construed as blocking free speech. Your electeds should be educated about how these laws are interpreted with their social media profiles. Again, involve your legal counsel in these decisions.
How do you get elected officials engaged with your agency’s social media efforts? Here’s a pro tip: Always show them the results of engagement that they produced. For example, if they participated in a live video, share with them a brief report showing them the impressions, the reach, the comments. When they see how their participation resulted in tangible interactions, they are more likely to remain connected to your social media program.
Help your elected officials to be comfortable about embracing social media, tempered with the knowledge of what they can and can’t do on social platforms.