When it comes to government entities' use of social media, it's tough to know all the rules. But look no further -- subject-matter experts have outlined the seven do's (and don'ts) to help government officials interact with the public and stay out of trouble.

On Feb. 3, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors hosted a one-hour webinar on social media featuring three experts. Government organizations from around the country tuned in to hear their guidance and advice for using social media to communicate with the public.

Social media is too important to ignore, said Todd Barnes, communications director for Thornton, Colo., and the event's moderator. “I think governments are finding out communications have to be as diverse as your audience,” he said. “If you are ignoring something that society is using and using as readily as social media, you’re really going to be missing a segment of your audience.”

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The event’s speakers were: Patrick Rollens, social media coordinator for Oak Park, Ill.; Tom Christensen, communications specialist for San Diego County; and Deborah Guthrie, communications director for Meridian Charter Township, Mich.

1.    Have good content

All three speakers agreed that having good content is crucial to engaging the audience. Organizations should take stock of what content they plan to post before getting started with social media, Rollens said. Press releases, calendar events, newsletter articles, crime and public safety alerts, Web-based resources and information from partner agencies like school districts and counties are good sources of content, he said.

Christensen added a few sources of content to the list. An organization’s employees have the best sense of how the public feels about it, he said, while leveraging community partners is a great opportunity to build relationships. Media outlets are another source of easy content when there’s nothing else available, he said, while subject-matter experts and outside government agencies can also provide unique content. Just ensure that whatever source is used is reliable and trusted, Christensen said.

2.    Plan your attack

Rollens suggested first identifying which social media platforms the organization’s audience is already using. In Oak Park's case, a neighboring community's message board already had a strong following. That was an ideal place for the government to start its online presence, he said, rather than going straight to Twitter and expecting everyone to follow the messaging there.

Christensen emphasized the importance of having one person who oversees all social media. It’s OK to have more than one person doing social media, he said, but it’s important to have a leader who can ensure continuity and avoid overlap of content. Once there’s a leader, organizations should decide which agencies should have their own social media accounts and where there should be central accounts, a decision that will be based on the content that is to be posted.

3.    Post frequently, but not too frequently

The speakers agreed that it’s important not to neglect social media once the accounts are launched because it makes the organization look bad. Four to eight Twitter posts each day is a good guideline, while zero to two Facebook posts is a good daily amount, Rollens suggested. Christensen warned against posting just to post – only post if there’s good content.

4.    Be conversational, but professional

Avoid sounding bureaucratic at all costs, Christensen warned. Speaking conversationally makes the organization sound authentic and gives people a chance to relate. However, be careful to not get too comfortable like Christensen's organization almost did.  San Diego County was considering posting that one of its employees was the “sexiest 75-year-old vegan” but decided against it, thinking that might be considered inappropriate by some members of the public. It’s important to draw that line in the right place, he said.

5.    Encourage participation

There are many ways to encourage people to get involved and connected with government, Christensen said. Posting photos gets more response from the public, he said, but only if they’re original – stock photos tend to make people phase out. Shorter posts get more interaction, even on Twitter, where the character count is already limited. Keeping Facebook posts under 250 characters boosts interaction by 60 percent, Christensen said.

Asking a question on Facebook boosts comments by 100 percent, he said, and 35 percent of followers will like a post if there’s a chance they can win something. Asking people to retweet on Twitter increases retweets 12 fold, and including links increases the chance of being shared by 86 percent, according to Christensen.

6.    Make rules and stick to them

All three speakers said social media policy is important both internally and to let the audience know what behavior won’t be tolerated. Guthrie shared the seven policies governing her organization, which included categories like “network connection usage,” “downloading of files,” and “email.” These policies are important because they establish expectations for everyone who interacts with the organization’s social media accounts, supports security and protects the organization legally, she said.

7.    Don’t wear mittens

During the Super Bowl, Rollens said J.C. Penney attempted a Twitter campaign in which it planned to promote winter mittens by having its employees type tweets while wearing mittens. While perhaps a cute idea in concept, the public decided that whoever was in charge of social media at J.C. Penney wasn’t wearing mittens, they were just drunk. J.C. Penney abandoned the idea and deleted some of the tweets.

Colin Wood Colin Wood  |  Staff Writer

Colin has been writing for Government Technology since 2010. He lives in Seattle with his wife and their dog. He can be reached at cwood@govtech.com and on Google+.