Surviving Social Media as a Government Entity: Tips from the Pros

Social media holds great promise for government, but can run aground if left unchecked. Two social media pros discuss the issues they've seen and how to handle them gracefully.

Social media holds the power for both great opportunity and utter humiliation. We have seen how it can topple aspirations for higher government, while allowing others to bask in the glory of its golden limelight. Is it fair? Perhaps not, but it's a chance you must take to govern in the modern world.
While the growing list of accidents, scandals and missteps might pull your focus from all of the treasures to be had from a well-run social media campaign, those who have traveled the dangerous path before you have wisdom to share.
When social media first came on the scene, it was seen as a tool for those living in the private space — a fun but ultimately novel idea without much use for public agencies. As it grew and people began to turn to the endless scrolling pages of popular apps like Facebook and Twitter for news and connections, forward thinkers in the public sector began to adapt the technology to reach their constituents. Today it's rare to find a government office or public official not tweeting, posting or sharing. But it's important to remember that sticking to the rules of common sense and good judgment are critical.

Engaging Smarter

Anyone who says that you are safe on social platforms is either misinformed or willfully ignorant. There is no safe haven, only an environment where otherwise reasonable people turn against one another for nothing more than a misunderstanding. 
For government, this will be exponentially worse. A tax increase proposal will be met with howls and moans that will echo out into cyberspace. A new cloud project will be the subject of ill-informed criticisms and accusations of wanton waste. It’s your job to push back, politely of course.
While Chris Weidel, with Nashville Mayor Megan Barry’s office of social media and communications, has a far more positive outlook of social media, she has seen the challenges of communicating policy decisions to those outside the halls of government. It is her job to be the liaison between the mayor’s office and the rest of the world.
“Our goal at least in local government is to be transparent, especially as a public figure," said Weidel. "To do that we can’t use overly technical terms or just share data and policy without explaining what it really is and why it matters. ... Once you translate, you can engage people and be responsive to them and their questions.”
Despite working to communicate as effectively as possible, there are always critics lurking behind distant computer screens, looking for an outlet to vent about unrelated issues. Weidel said in these moments a cool head and the ability to step back from the keyboard are essential to surviving in a digital world as a public official.
“We definitely don’t respond to anything that is threatening or respond out of anger to people. I get a lot of messages that I feel are really hateful or really discriminatory to people that live in our country, and with those ones I just have to take some time. I think it’s really important to, as quickly as social media goes, just take time and don’t take things personally, otherwise you’re never going to be able to do this job …” she said. “What you tweet out can make the news and that’s kind of a scary thing. So you definitely have to at least think for a minute.” 
Regardless of your intentions, a tweet or post can be a major setback.
At the Idaho National Laboratory, an agency focused on nuclear energy under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Energy, Digital Communications Specialist Emily Nichols also relies on good judgment, a system of checks and balances, and an understanding of the issues to engage the larger community.
Though those within the agency take a certain stance on the often polarizing topic of nuclear energy, Nichols said understanding all sides of the discussion is critical to becoming a source of information instead of an adversary. “We try to build a culture of [positivity] and openness with our own employees, as well as our community and our constituents," she said. "We want to be able to build that dialog and have conversations even if they are a little hard."
The laboratory's approach is not one of listening to respond or push an agenda, but rather “listening to learn.”

The Threat Within and Without

Regardless of how prepared or safe you feel behind an enterprisewide strategy of thoughtful and well placed content, there are external forces to consider. Though the Barry administration in Nashville has been largely free from online crisis, according to Weidel, the private social accounts of some employees have had a negative impact on the city. 
“We’ve had some issues recently with employees and social media, and they have earned media on television and the newspaper," she said. "That’s been sort of difficult because we do have an acceptable-use policy in place for all of our employees. It’s just interesting that their views are reflecting so heavy on the city as a whole even when it’s on their personal account.”
This has put the city in the position of re-evaluating its employee social media use policies and striking a delicate balance between institutional interests and freedom of speech.
“Our policy is formatted in such a way that it lets us do something if anything were to happen, but it doesn’t, right now, really explain to them the ramifications of their actions. I think [the policy] has been in place for four years and in that time, everything has changed,” Weidel explained. “We’re working on updating that policy now, but it’s hard because you don’t want to limit freedom of speech, but you also don’t want known Metro employees commenting on these very controversial topics.”
The lesson for other governments is that employees are seldom aware of how their actions can jump off the screen and into the workplace. Engaging them in the conversation is critical.

The Currency of Trade: Authenticity 

Social media possesses the ability to inform and misinform in just a few hundred characters. For Nichols, the strategy behind social engagement is to establish trust and credibility — even in the face of differing viewpoints. 
When crisis strikes or facts need to be corrected, she and the communications team that supports the Idaho National Laboratory rely on their relationship capital with the audience to communicate above the static.
"If we can bring that human aspect back into the storytelling that we do and the sharing that we do, then we are going to become more trusted and build those relationships in a more authentic way," she said. "You can’t really force relationships, you have to truly work at those, and I think that is something we are trying to do."
Weidel agrees that authenticity is essential to connecting with any audience. Robotic language and grip-and-grin photos won’t do the trick. Translated into statistics, Weidel said companies that put authenticity first see big returns, as much as 5 to 7 percent. Why should government be any different?
Responsiveness ties in strongly to authenticity and being able to correct problems. Too often, Nichols said, government is known for waiting for all the facts and leaving the public to fill in the gaps. This should be avoided.
“Often government gets really wound up in not letting any information out until it is absolutely right, and of course that is important, but sometimes I think we take too long to respond, especially when it comes to a crisis,” she said.
It isn’t simply enough to wait on an incident to put out a statement. Organizations need to position themselves to be a responsive voice whenever there is an opportunity or need.
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