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The Case for Social Media Policies Has Never Been Stronger

Governments of all sizes have struggled to put boundaries around social media use, occasionally running into controversy and scandal. In today’s connected world, those with the logins need to play by a set of rules.

by / March 24, 2021

At this point in 2021, the usefulness of social media to all levels of government is without question, but establishing effective guardrails and policies has continued to be an issue for some in public service. Even more evasive, perhaps, are the enforcement mechanisms to correct missteps.

This was the topic of discussion during a Tuesday panel at the Government Social Media Conference, where Kaitlin Keeler, digital editorial manager for Oakland County, Mich., shared insights and the work being done within her agency. 

According to Keeler, having a set policy in place will help to protect a government agency, its employees, and the community it serves. Even before a new policy is created, she explained, the agency can do several things to follow best practices.

An agency should start by identifying existing policies and laws that may be of impact. This could include things like the employee code of conduct, privacy policy or relevant state and local laws. In addition to considering the applicable laws, the right people need to be involved in creating the policy. This will likely include elected officials, administration, human resources, communications employees, a social media team and a legal team. This stakeholder group will be integral to writing the policy, following it and even making decisions about enforcing it.

Keeler was initially concerned about reaching out to her own legal team, thinking that they would turn down some of her ideas or requests. Instead, she found that they made a strong partner in the creation of an effective policy. 

“That’s where relationship building is really, really key,” she said. “Your legal agency’s there just to protect your best interest, the agency’s best interest, the employees’ best interest [and] the public’s best interest, so they’re a great partner.”

In the case of a legal team that is not familiar with social media best practices, Keeler advised bringing experience-based recommendations to help point them in the right direction. 

She emphasized that social media policy will vary — as do state, regional, and local laws — so what works for one agency may not work effectively for another; however, the guiding principle should be clarity.

“It’s going to be more effective if it’s concise and actionable,” described Keeler. “And don’t forget about tone. We really want the social media policy to be approachable. Use plain language so it’s not intimidating.”

Once a social media policy has been created in partnership with appropriate stakeholders, enforcing that policy ensures the agency’s protection. This begins with education on what the new policy actually entails.

To be transparent with the public about social media policy, an agency can include it on their website or link to it from social media. Oakland County’s social media policy, for example, is available online for public viewing. To be transparent internally, an agency should be sure that the information is easily accessible for employees.

“Everyone benefits from having some clear rules of engagement so they know what they can and can’t do,” stated Keeler.

Making it abundantly clear to employees what is and is not allowed should reduce violations. It should be clear what types of content are never allowed; this will likely include confidential, copyrighted, or HIPPA-sensitive information. A policy should also include crystal-clear limits on the use of vulgar, sexual, or illegal content — even if this expectation goes without saying. 

Keeler described an incident in which someone tweeted out racist pictures, and in that case, the incident broke the rules of the employee code of conduct rather than the social media policy, so the code of conduct is what really came into effect in that case. This further signifies the importance of being sure all the policies across a government entity are coordinated with each other, she said.

Despite frequent training, violations of the policy may still occur, and Keeler explained that it should be clear what consequences employees should expect if they violate the policy. In the case of a violation, the options are to either educate the violator or to enforce with a consequence such as disciplinary action. 

Keeler said consequences may vary case by case, and it will be up to the agency’s social media team, human resources department and potentially the legal team to determine what action needs to be taken. 

 

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Julia Edinger Staff Writer

Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.

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