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Reconciling Friends: Public Officials Meet Social Media Policy

Your agency needs a social media policy. Seriously, your agency needs a social media policy.

by / June 10, 2016

There are many reasons why it is critical to establish a social media policy, but perhaps the best way to convey this fact is by noting that the effort to establish a social media policy is magnitudes less expensive than the legal headaches that stem from not having one. So please establish a policy (and if you need help, here’s a social media template composed of public-sector best practices).

After establishing a policy, the next step is to ensure that it is being followed That’s where things get hairy. And there is no greater enforcement challenge than ensuring that your public officials are complying with your social media policy. Why? Here are just a few reasons:

  • Public officials are people! And unlike corporate entities, it is normal for people to have their own social media pages where they share personal and professional matters.
  • Many public officials are elected officials. Campaigns and elections are not subject to the same record-keeping laws and other requirements as an individual actively conducting business on behalf of the government. Hence, adherence to policy is often imperfect once an individual transitions into public office.
  • There is a tremendous lack of awareness. The fact that social media communications often comprise important, official government communications is still a novel concept to many. Yes, I hate to break it to you: That 140 character tweet about a proposed ordinance carries the same weight as an official news release.

A failure to follow policy is (usually) not the public official’s fault. The facts listed above mean it's likely to happen. So how do we help social media policy make sense for our officials? Before we get into that, it’s worth reviewing a few key components of a social media policy:

  • Employee use. It is obviously tricky to draw the line between personal and professional use of social media when dealing with a public official.
  • Public records laws and retention requirements. Without question, social media generates public records that must be maintained in accordance with public records law. Again, this is tricky when public officials are using their own social media profiles.
  • Comment moderation. Public officials often receive the brunt of criticism on social media, and have to be especially careful about censoring speech. A well constructed social media policy will provide clear guidance regarding what types of comments can and cannot be removed (or hidden) from your social media pages.
  • Profile registration. Savvy communications offices understand how to distribute the power of social media without losing control. Mandating profile registration in your policy sends the message that every social media profile conducting business on behalf of the agency is a brand representative of the agency, and must adhere to all guidelines and requirements.

As you can see, the key components that comprise a social media policy are actually highly relevant to the use of social media by public officials. And, broadly speaking, you have three options for making sure your public officials comply:

  1. Ensure that your public officials never communicate about public business using their personal social media profiles. Good luck with this!
  2. Establish professional profiles and pages for the official that are separate from their personal profiles. This approach makes sense for more prominent officials such as governors and mayors, but might not work with every member of the city council or county commissioners.
  3. Educate and train your officials on your policy and, for the course of their public service, subject their personal profiles to the same requirements as your corporate profiles. It sounds uncomfortable (and it certainly can be!), but the reality is that if they're using their personal profiles to communicate on behalf of the agency, then those personal profiles are now professional profiles. Technology can help simplify the process of monitoring and archiving the public official’s social media communications for the length of time required.

Have you succeeded with applying your social media policy to your public officials? If so, share your tips and tricks in the comments section below.

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Anil Chawla
Anil Chawla is the founder and CEO of ArchiveSocial, a civic tech company that specializes in risk mitigation and open records management of government social media. The parent company of Government Technology is an investor in ArchiveSocial through e.Republic Ventures.

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