Following November’s midterm elections, many newcomers will be taking up positions in state and local government. Here are two missteps politicians should avoid to ensure effective connection with constituents.
If you’re lucky enough to be a social media user elected to a government office, congratulations! You’ve entered the often-confusing world of being both a politician and an elected official in the age of social media.
You’ve likely grown a following of people supporting your campaign, and now you’ll enter an office where you represent constituents from both sides of the aisle. You’re probably bringing several social media profiles with you, and perhaps some staffers too, as you transition into your new role.
Let’s talk about two social media pitfalls to avoid right off the bat in order to help you and your constituents experience all the best of what social has to offer.
Help keep yourself out of trouble by keeping your personal and elected official profiles as separate as possible. It’s not as easy as it sounds, and it may be very difficult to claim that your personal accounts are indeed private if your communications are about government business, or if you tie them to your elected role in the descriptive language on your profile.
As you may recall, last year President Trump faced a lawsuit from several citizens represented by the Knight First Amendment Institute for blocking them from his Twitter account. The president’s defense argued that @realDonaldTrump is the president’s personal account, which he maintained well before his presidency.
In May 2018, federal district judge Naomi Reice Buchwald ruled that because the account was registered to “the 45th President of the United States of America,” combined with the fact that it had been used to conduct official business and a handful of other reasons, those tweets were indeed considered public record. The court ruled that blocking the Twitter users from this account did violate their First Amendment rights.
With this in mind, if you do maintain both personal and professional accounts on social platforms, make sure there is a clear line between the two. Note that it’s a violation of Facebook’s terms of service for an individual to have two profiles, so a good rule of thumb on that platform is to have a personal “profile” and a professional “page.”
New politicians making a difference for their jurisdictions will inevitably want to run for re-election. You may even have wonderful communications staff who maintain your professional profiles and want to help your campaign by sharing endorsements, advertisements and statements supporting you for re-election.
As I’ve noted in this column before, public employees can’t use, or be directed to use, official government profiles to campaign for candidates or ballot measures. Staff may be able to work around this in your state by volunteering their time to support your campaign only during non-work hours. If they want to go that route, first confirm that this practice is acceptable with your state and local campaign laws, that they’re not using work equipment, and that any social media posts aren’t coming from your official government profiles.
When in doubt, set up a chat with your agency’s legal counsel for advice. Engage on social media with your constituents by all means, but understand these two potential missteps so you can avoid them and focus on the important business of good government.