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May 1, 2019
    Article highlights
  • Get started with an effective policy plan.
  • Essential component of a good government social media policy.
  • Sample government social media policies and other helpful resources.

Social media can be an incredibly helpful tool for government agencies. No matter what sector or branch of government you are in, your constituents and employees are using social media.

According to Pew Research Center, 69% of the public uses some type of social media. And 62% of adults get the majority of their news on social media.

Social media lets governments connect and engage with their communities. It allows government agencies to share news and information easily and quickly. When used well, government social media can increase transparency and build trust with citizens.

But social media can also be dangerous.

Social media outlets like Twitter have the potential to spread scandals and create PR nightmares. If government agencies aren’t careful, social media can end up hurting the agency’s reputation and damaging public trust.

Therefore, it’s essential for local governments to create and maintain policies to guide social media use.

A government social media policy should cover agency use, professional use, and employees’ personal use. The policy should encourage staff to use social media responsibly and thoughtfully both inside and outside of work.

A government social media policy helps ensure that social media is a useful tool for your agency instead of a liability. Here are some helpful tips for creating an effective government social media policy:

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Getting Started: Effective Policy Planning

Your government municipality may already have some form of social media policy in place. According to Pew, roughly half of all workplaces have rules about employees using social media at work.

However, the social media landscape changes quickly. You need to make sure your agency’s policy is up to date and broad enough to adequately cover new forms of social media.

Here are a few places to start with a government social media policy:

Determine your goals and objectives

Before you start writing or revising your government social media policy, establish what you are trying to accomplish.

Is the goal to correct or prevent employee misuse? Do you need to establish a strategy for official agency posts? Or develop more consistency in social media use across different departments? Perhaps you need to limit how employees use their personal social media at work.

Starting with the end in mind will help inform the policy-writing process. Brainstorm the goals and objectives for your agency before you begin writing.

This will help you create a well-rounded, robust policy that speaks to all the areas you need it to cover.

Gather a cross-department team

Creating government social media policy can be tricky. Governments must comply with laws and regulations about recordkeeping, privacy, and freedom of information.

Social media policies have to protect employees’ right to free speech, but also establish guidelines to make sure employees represent your agency well and don’t release sensitive information.

Government employees look at social media together on a tablet.

Since a government social media policy intersects with so many other issues, it’s wise to consult with experts from multiple disciplines during the writing process.

Your policy creation team should include representatives from HR, IT, communications, legal, and any other relevant departments. You may also want to add some line-level employees from different departments to help ensure employee buy-in.

Identify existing policies that may relate

Chances are, your government social media policy will intersect with other existing policies.

Your agency’s code of conduct may establish expectations for employee behavior both inside and outside of work. Your acceptable use policy may cover how employees can use technology at work and what information they can and cannot share about their work.

These existing guidelines can be a useful starting point for your agency’s social media policy. Often, you can borrow language and guidelines from other policies to ensure consistency.

Essential Areas of Government Social Media Policy

The days of restricting employee access to all social media platforms are long gone. In the past, social media was mainly used for personal communication. But now, there are many legitimate professional uses of social media.

As the Center for Technology in Government points out in a detailed report about designing social media policy, the lines between personal and professional social media use are increasingly blurry.

An effective government social media policy will seek to distinguish different types of social media use and create guidelines for each.

The end goals and objectives for your social media policy will help establish how your policy will address each of these uses. But the policy should at least touch on each of the following areas:

Official use

Social media should be part of a government’s overall communication strategy. You wouldn’t allow just anyone to speak on behalf of the government, so you shouldn’t allow just anyone to tweet or post on behalf of the government.

Government social media policy should guide the creation and use of official social media accounts.

Governments take different approaches to official accounts. Some funnel communication from all departments through one or two centralized government social media accounts.

Some allow different departments to create and control separate official accounts. For example, the parks and recreation department may have its own Facebook page, or emergency management may create a separate Twitter handle.

In any case, a government social media policy should address questions such as:

  • Who has the authority to establish and delete official accounts?
  • Who is responsible for developing and implementing social media strategy?
  • What are the procedures for posting and verifying content? And who is responsible for content accuracy and corrections?
  • How should administrators monitor and interact with citizen comments and posts?

These are just a few of the issues to address before your agency starts using social media.

New issues are sure to come up as you use social media and adopt new platforms, so be sure to regularly review and update your social media policies.

As you create and refine your government social media policy, make sure it tightly adheres to any existing communication policies and guidelines about public information.

Professional interest

There are many legitimate ways employees use social media for professional activities. This may include researching potential new hires, collaborating with professional networks, or researching work-related questions.

According to Pew, 20% of people say they use social media to find information that helps them solve problems at work.

A government social media policy should differentiate between beneficial, professional use and personal use.

As the National League of Cities points out, professional social media use can still pose risks:

Professional media sites pose many of the same risks as purely personal sites. They are also more likely to be accessed during work time using the governmentʼs technology.

Because professional social media specifically relates to professional interests, the employee is more likely to be identified with the government and discuss its business than on a purely personal social media site. Disclosing confidential information, casting the government it in an unfavorable light, and misrepresenting the governmentʼs position are all risks.

As this type of social media use becomes more common, it’s essential that government social media policy establishes guidelines and restrictions for professional social media.

The policy should outline restrictions on what sites employees can access on government devices and what information they can disclose.

Personal use

Policies can’t necessarily entirely prevent employees from using personal social media at work. But government social media policy should put some restrictions in place about using personal social media on company technology or on company time.

Government employees taking a selfie.

Social media can be a distraction. Fifty-six percent of workers told Pew that social media distracts from their work.

At the very least, policies should specify that employees should not let personal social media use interfere with their work or performance. And social media use at work should adhere to the employee code of conduct and acceptable use policies.

However, things get more complicated when employees are off the clock. Courts have ruled that overly broad social media policies violate employees’ right to free speech. Policies should allow for freedom of expression with some exceptions.

For example, the policy may prohibit employees from sharing private or confidential government information.

The National League of Cities suggests a few ways to address other risks of personal social media use in government social media policy. They suggest including “a requirement that employees include in any post related to the government or their job on a personal or professional site a disclaimer that the posting reflects their opinion and not that of the government.”

Elected officials

Social media can help elected officials engage with constituents and share information and updates.

For the most part, elected officials should be held to the same policies as other government employees. However, elected officials also need to make sure that their social media use complies with laws about campaigning and open meetings.

A government social media policy should establish restrictions for how elected officials and their staffs can use official government social media.

The Association of Washington Cities provides some helpful guidelines for elected and appointed officials using social media.

They suggest clearly defining official accounts, campaign accounts, and personal accounts for elected officials.

Creating clear distinctions can keep officials from violating laws pertaining to public records, open meetings, and campaigning.

Sample Policies and Other Resources

As you seek to develop government social media policy and strategy for your agency, be sure to establish your goals, research relevant laws, and make sure the policy is consistent with other government policies.

Here are some helpful resources and sample policies for creating your social media policy:

Careful planning, establishing guidelines for the different uses of social media, and regular policy updates can help ensure that social media benefits rather than hurts your government agency.

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