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4 Factors Agencies Should Consider When Developing a Social Media Policy

As public-sector organizations grapple with using social media effectively, experts won’t hesitate to advise that a strong, comprehensive policy be a part of the discussion. Here are some things to consider when crafting that policy.

RENO, Nev. — The unchecked use of social media has caused more than a few issues since exploding onto the scene several years ago.

As organizations and the people behind them grapple with the effective use of the tools in the government space, experts won’t hesitate to advise that a strong, comprehensive policy be a part of the discussion.

Heather Shirm, manager of Digital Marketing and Communications for Palm Beach County, Fla., offered her suggestions during a session at the 2016 Government Social Media Conference (GSMCON) Wednesday, April 6.

The county manages nearly 200 accounts, and was recognized at the 2015 GSMCON for its social media policy and procedures. 

When sitting down with decision-makers and the various stakeholder agencies, Shirm contends that the legal staff should be involved in the initial conversation.

Addressing legal limitations up front, she said, can help to insulate organizations from unintended consequences associated with the regular use of social media platforms as a public service tool.

“We know they can be nit-picky," Shirm added, "but they will make sure you are addressing all of the issues that need to be addressed and help you protect your agency."

This conversation should include how records of social media accounts are being kept. As accounts are increasingly leveraged by government entities, the information contained within them is being sought more frequently as a part of public records requests.

2. Use Plain Language and Leverage the Work of Others

The final product should be something that both staff and the public can understand. When is a comment deleted? What is included in the public record?

“As much plain language as you can use for both your employees and the public will help to increase compliance,” Shirm said, also noting that those commenting on a government page may not be aware that their comments are included in public record requests.

Shirm said policy templates make excellent starting points for agencies looking to lay ground rules for their own programs.

While the policy may need adjustment, she said the work of others in the same space makes for an excellent starting point.

“Use a template. I say beg, borrow and steal," Shirm said. "There are lots of [social media] templates out there."

3. Give Guidance and Assign Responsibility

When it comes to posting procedures, Shirm suggests clear rules on what and even how a post is made. This includes things like hashtags that may be unique to the jurisdiction and the types of posts that should be considered inappropriate.

Oftentimes agencies fall short in outlining who is responsible for the management and oversight of the online resources. Department leadership should feel comfortable in assigning a social media coordinator and monitoring for compliance with agency policy.

The policy should also include clear definitions and rules regarding the use of personal emails to create accounts, and clear guidelines as to when and if a personal social media account is used in the professional setting.

4. Circle Back and Rework as Needed

Since Palm Beach County kicked off its original draft of a social media policy in 2010, Shirm said county policies have undergone two revisions. By gathering the input of other agencies, organizations are better able to address practical issues and improve upon them.

Eyragon Eidam is the Web editor for Government Technology magazine, after previously serving as assistant news editor and covering such topics as legislation, social media and public safety. He can be reached at