Government Social Media has Come a Long Way

Business women hand are uses a smartphone and use a laptop computer in office.Web banner.

This article originally appeared in the “GovGirl on Social” column in Government Technology Magazine.

Social media use in the public sector has come a long way.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time government agencies started getting involved on social media. You could argue that the first avant-garde governments experimented with social media back in the late ’90s by blogging or the early 2000s in the heyday of virtual-reality worlds. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notoriously kicked off its presence on the online game Second Life around 2006.

There was also some public-sector experimentation when YouTube launched in 2005 and Twitter in 2006. But in my mind, 2007 was the most notable year for government social media. That’s when Facebook launched its Pages product. This pivotal change let companies and brands create a presence beyond individual profiles, breaking free of the requirement that people submit a “friend request.”

Use of government social media became even more palatable for the public sector when the General Services Administration negotiated with several social platforms to provide federal government-friendly terms of service agreements. The National Association of State Chief Information Officers did the same for state and local agencies in 2011 and 2012.

Fast-forward to 2019, and you’ll find that most cities, counties and states maintain some type of social media presence. The government social media management profession is a skilled role gaining its footing.

There will always be agencies that struggle with the concept of establishing a robust social presence. In my experience, they’re either worried about opening themselves up to criticism or concerned about getting into sticky legal situations with confusion about public records or deleting comments, among other less-prominent reasons.

The early days of government social media practices were frequently marred with questions such as, “Should we or shouldn’t we engage on social media?” Current problems facing social media managers involve much more sophisticated and complex issues, like how to balance free speech and comment moderation, or how to reconcile fundamental differences between agency and platform policies.

Ahead of the fifth annual Government Social Media Conference this April, I’m reminded why an event supporting professionals who manage social media in the public sector matters. Probably the most notable and important success stories in government social media are in the areas of public safety and public health.

However, there’s still a misconception that social media management is an unskilled profession akin to something an intern can handle. This mindset does a severe disservice to public agencies. When I write an update to this article in a few years, my expectation is that this hurdle will be behind us. I look forward to the day where the answer to the question “What do you want to major in?” just might be “social media management with a focus on public sector.”


Social Media’s Role in Crisis Planning Exercises

This article originally appeared in the “GovGirl on Social” column in Government Technology Magazine.

Social media communications during a crisis situation can come from any number of agencies, not just police, fire or emergency management as you might expect. In some instances, these communications originate from the city or county manager’s office, department of transportation, public works or water services — it all depends on the manner of crisis and the size of the agency’s social media presence. It’s crucial for all types of agencies and major departments to incorporate social media into crisis planning exercises.

When your agency gets together to plan response to high-risk emergency scenarios, make sure your social media coordinator has a seat at the table. At the same time, social media professionals should remember to reach out to their local emergency manager in exercises that involve planning social media messaging for crisis situations.


There are many ways to incorporate social media in your crisis planning exercises. One basic activity is to organize all of your social media contributors and other stakeholders in a room to plan messages and tactics for specific emergencies.

Start by brainstorming the top five to 10 high-risk crisis scenarios that have the potential to impact your agency. This could be a flood, tornado, active shooter situation, mass casualty incident, school bus crash, polar vortex — you name it.

For each of these crises, begin to craft some of the generic social media messages that should be shared during these emergency situations. Type up what the potential crisis scenario might be, then draft several social messages that you’d most likely need to share if the situation were to unfold.

Your messages could include anything from preparedness information (what citizens can do before this crisis hits) to the first message you’ll want to share immediately after you get the word. There will be a lot of details you don’t know yet, but use blanks for the specifics. The goal is to have some content ready, no matter the situation. Timing is critical.

When I teach social media crisis planning, we don’t stop here. It’s just as important for the agency to talk about strategies for handling all the other things that happen during a crisis that may impact social media. Some questions to ponder during your planning exercises:

  • There’s a disruptive rumor spreading on social media while you’re managing the crisis. How can your team address it?
  • You have zero new information about the crisis, and it’s going on 20 minutes since your last tweet. What is acceptable filler?
  • At the start of the emergency, you forgot to unschedule a lighthearted or humorous Facebook post. It’s getting backlash for inappropriate timing. How do you handle it?
  • People start tweeting that they’re trapped and need help. What’s your social media protocol?


What if the emergency isn’t actually in your jurisdiction, but you want to be ready to support other agencies with your messages on social media? Establish your strategy for supporting the lead agency if the crisis does not fall within your area, and “stay in your lane” while continuing to share their communications and contribute in a helpful way.

Remember, planning shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of those involved in crafting the social media plan. I highly recommend developing a crisis communications strategy and protocols in tandem with local and regional emergency management and public safety officials. Don’t forget to ensure that your procedures align with broader plans.


Using Instagram Stories For Government

This article originally appeared in the “GovGirl on Social” column in Government Technology Magazine.

Is it a waste of time for government social media managers to create content that only lasts 24 hours? The transience of Instagram Stories can make social media staff question the value of contributing their already-limited time and resources.

Instagram’s Stories feature isn’t alone — Snapchat pioneered this format, Facebook launched its own version and LinkedIn is even testing a Stories-like product for a student audience. As more social networks release features involving disappearing content, how can using this approach bring value to those who manage public-sector social media?


The photos and videos shared as a part of your agency’s story can contribute more value to your online presence. Instagram Stories has a significant user base of 400 million daily active users, and profile managers can see who is viewing their story. Just be sure to document the analytics from your story before it expires so you can demonstrate the success to leadership and stakeholders.

Many agencies are seeing a noticeable amount of engagement from their communities on Instagram. There’s no limit to what you can post on your Instagram Story, plus there are features on the platform to help personalize the experience for your audience.

When chatting about the time investment during a bi-weekly Twitter discussion for government social media managers, here’s what Lauren Tibs Oxford (@the_real_tibs), the digital communications strategist for Gilbert, Ariz., said: “It’s totally worth it to invest the time in Instagram Stories. More and more people are spending time there, because it’s fun and interactive, and totally unique from other platforms. It’s a great way to show behind-the-scenes, ask questions, use polls and more.”


Using Instagram Stories increases the likelihood that people will see your content. You can also use it to direct people to your most recent post for more information, or use the “swipe up” feature as a call to action that will lead viewers to your website. Covering live events using Instagram Stories is another way to keep your followers informed. For particularly meaningful stories that feature your agency or contain important news, keep in mind that you can always add it to the “highlights” section of your profile. This way your existing followers can view the story over again and it will stay available for any new followers.

Instagram Stories is a different kind of storytelling technique that allows for more creativity and interaction with your citizens than some other platforms. While it may seem like you need to be a social media expert to master the tool, avid users typically advise that a polished piece isn’t necessarily expected. If anything, spur-of-the-moment content feels more natural. It shouldn’t be a struggle to come up with natural and authentic Stories content.

Jon Tolbert (@TheJonTolbert), digital strategist for Columbus, Ohio, recently tweeted his advice: “Stories allow more creativity from social media managers and encourage more engagement from your citizens. The time investment is not as considerable as one might expect, and the results speak for themselves for agencies that have made it work!”


How New Politicians Can Prevent Common Social Media Mistakes

hand holding mobile device showing social media icons

This article originally appeared in the “GovGirl on Social” column in Government Technology Magazine.

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.


Largest Training Event for Government Social Media Professionals

Whether you’re new to the government social media space or an experienced maven, you need to pitch your boss on why you should attend the Government Social Media Conference (GSMCON2019).

Our company founded the first and largest social media conference for government social media professionals in city, county and state government. The fifth anniversary of the event is heading to Nashville, Tennessee from April 2-4, 2019 for our best program yet! Many of the major social networks and platforms typically send teams to meet and interact with attendees.

Picture a training event designed for social media contributors interested in learning how to use social media to maximize their government agency’s online presence. The event brings together a unique audience of hundreds of social media managers, communicators, elected officials, public information officers, law enforcement – anyone and everyone who manages social media for their public agency. Other public sector agencies are also welcome, including federal government, education, military and quasi-government entities. GSMCON is also open to private industry.

So far, we’ve revealed a number of speakers you can expect to see at GSMCON2019. Visit the event website for more updates to come regarding additional speakers, keynotes and sessions as the 2019 program develops. We’re including a broad range of beginner, intermediate and advanced topics to ensure that everyone has something to gain.

Here is a compact, one-page Executive Summary that you can use for your training/travel approvals, and we hope to see you at GSMCON2019 in April!


Recognizing the Consequences of Hiding Social Comments

laptop with comment bubbles

This article originally appeared in the “GovGirl on Social” column in Government Technology Magazine.

It’s a fairly common practice for government agencies to “hide” social media comments for violating their social media policy, rather than delete them. There is a sense that hiding comments isn’t as bad as permanently removing them. But hiding is actually far worse and can have unintended implications for government.

Citizens have a right to disagree with what your agency does and even to be downright angry, thanks to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Freedom of speech gives citizens the right to express opinions without fear of persecution or censorship by government. First Amendment protections also extend to certain statements made on social media. Therefore, your social media policy should be crystal clear about any circumstances that would give your agency the right to remove comments, such as the use of profanity, discriminating remarks or threats. It’s common for governments to have a comment moderation policy such as this.


When government social media administrators use Facebook’s tool to hide a comment, no notification or other indication is sent to the person who posted the comment. The citizen likely has no idea that their comment was hidden. Some social media administrators believe hiding is appealing because it feels less obtrusive for the commenter than entirely deleting their comment. Others believe that if the citizen has no idea, then they can’t voice additional anger or post disgruntled rebuttals. It defuses the situation.

But here’s the problem: The real trouble in hiding comments on Facebook is that the commenter, and his or her Facebook friends, can still view the comment. Not only this, but they can continue the conversation by replying to the comment, without knowing that the comment is no longer public on your page.


The problem with hiding comments is that it’s a purposeful move by an agency’s representatives to be secretive about displaying something a citizen wrote on their department’s Facebook page. If your agency ever had to argue a position in court, you would likely need to fully disclose your intention in hiding the comment. Even if a comment egregiously violates your comment policy, and you hide it, what if someone in that person’s friend list posts a reply to it? Maybe the friend’s comment doesn’t violate your policy and contributes to useful public discourse. Unknown to them, their reply is hidden from anyone outside their friends viewing it.

If you’re dealing with a company or business in the private sector, hiding comments might not be a big deal. But when you’re a government agency, it’s a whole different story. If a social media comment is worthy of deletion because it violates your official social media comment policy, then delete the comment while following your records retention protocols. Be cautious of looking to hiding as a less severe alternative.


Getting Boss Buy-In on Social

This article originally appeared in the “GovGirl on Social” column in Government Technology Magazine.

Is your boss completely sold on the fact that your agency is using social media? While many cities across the country have had a presence on social media for years, I still hear from staff at agencies who are having a hard time convincing their managers to let them fully engage on social media.

Even agencies that are active on social media need trust from leadership to fully embrace the platforms and to get the resources they need to operate a well-run program. Why is leadership sometimes so hesitant to authorize more than using the platforms for one-way information blasts?

While government leaders may be great at what they do to improve their communities, some of them just don’t realize the importance of social media in providing a valuable customer service resource for the people they serve. And more often than not, they’ve seen some very public social media fails and they’re afraid of what could happen.

The good news is that many agencies have been down this road before. Here are some tips for gaining boss buy-in.


Inevitably, another government agency will be highlighted in the news for a social media fail. This type of thing makes managers very nervous. Use this time as an opportunity to explain why the post failed in specific terms (e.g., not simply that the agency “was trying to be funny,” but that its attempted use of humor failed to consider its audience and the context of the situation). Show your boss that the reason for the fail isn’t a mystery, and illustrate that you can be articulate about what went wrong for the other agency. Finally, remind them that social media training is important — both for social media managers and agencywide staff.


Asking your boss to trust you on social media is very broad. It may be difficult for them to wrap their head around exactly what you want them to do. The reason behind their “no” may be that they actually appreciate your efforts, but they’re concerned that giving you the green light means you’ll be doing some major avant-garde social media experimentation.

Instead, break it down to more specific requests by articulating what their support would look like. For example, if you want to break away from simply spitting out press releases and move toward promoting two-way communication, you might ask for their support in a series of posts designed for engagement related to a particular topic. Maybe you want them to help you internally route questions and feedback from the public to the appropriate department, or maybe you want their assistance with getting your summary report to specific agencies.

Always make sure to show your boss the success of their buy-in, including the impact and engagement with your constituents.

Finally, it’s always easier to get your boss to listen to your advice if you can show that you have solid social media management experience as a practitioner in the field. Hone your skills with membership in relevant organizations, participate in educational conferences, learn from webinars and get any other training you can find.


Learn to Write a Social Media Plan in Online Course

We are very excited to introduce our new “2-Week Social Media Plan For Government” online course running from July 30 through August 10, 2018.

If you are a busy social media manager, coordinator or contributor who understands how important it is to have a working social media plan for your government agency, this is the course for you. With a series of 4 live webinars (each of which are recorded so you can go back and reference them), a master checklist, blueprint worksheets and daily email reminders, we will guide you through every step of building your agency’s strategic social media plan in just two weeks.  

We realize how important it is to offer a cost-effective service that can reach the most government agencies possible. That’s why we’ve spent the last year developing the best way to teach government social media coordinators how to draft an effective social media plan through an online course.

Government agencies perform more effectively on social media when they have a strategic plan to reference and share with their teams. Most government agencies have some form of a social media policy, but many do not have an official social media plan to guide them. That’s why we’re here to help!

View course details and registration information here:



Value of including leadership in your social media efforts

This article originally appeared in the “GovGirl on Social” column in Government Technology Magazine.

Government social media coordinators are sometimes so focused on doing their work well that they forget the tremendous value of bringing in agency leaders. There’s an art to doing this strategically, and it ensures a consistent reminder to leadership of the good work you’re doing for your organization.

Don’t get into the mindset that as long as you remain under the radar, your social media program can continue to function unbothered. While this may be the case for some agencies, more often than not, communicating your successes to leadership will help reinforce buy-in and ensure continued growth of your program. Social media should be constantly evolving, adapting and meeting your citizens’ needs. The best way to keep that happening is to loop in leadership on your social media successes and strategies to earn their ongoing support.


Virtually all the social media platforms you use offer some type of data analytics. This ranges from information on reach and impressions to demographic characteristics to full-blown charts and graphs. Before you start pulling together 20-page social media reports with all the supporting data you can find, take some time to consider who you’re preparing the reports for, and appropriately tailor the style and information you present.

Department heads are usually interested in social media results that pertain directly to their programs, while the highest-level reports are most likely to resonate with executive leadership and elected officials. I always recommend using visuals with charts or graphics that highlight the pertinent information and make it easy to digest with only a glance (which is usually all the time leadership can afford to spend). Keep in mind that leadership has many demands on their time, and a short executive summary of the key highlights is usually preferred.


Another approach for looping in leadership with your social media strategies is to directly involve them in some aspect of it. For instance, ask them to participate in a particular tweet-along, live video or live tweet. This tactic can be fitting for department heads, commissioners, mayors, chiefs — virtually any leadership position.

Make sure that you’re extremely organized, the activity is well-planned and they’re well-coached. Include an outline, talking points and anything else that will enhance an agency head’s experience. The point is that they’ll see your behind-the-scenes process, which is likely much more sophisticated than they expected.

When using the show-don’t-tell approach, don’t forget to come full circle when the social media activity is complete and provide them a mini-report showing them the direct results of their involvement. Seeing the impressions, reach, comments and so on can show them how their participation resulted in tangible interactions. Sometimes, drawing the direct connection between effort and real-world results can make all the difference.

It continues to be an exciting and important time for social media in the public sector in 2018, and support from leadership can be critical to your agency’s efforts.


Best practices for elected officials engaged in social media

This article originally appeared in the “GovGirl on Social” column in Government Technology Magazine.

In an ideal world, we want elected officials to feel comfortable about embracing social media yet balance that energy with the knowledge of how to properly administer their profiles.

As Twitter gains momentum as a platform for public-sector leaders, it’s more important than ever to take the opportunity to review best practices for use of social media by elected officials.


Many government agencies have an official social media policy in place, which is a good thing. But most of those policies don’t address what elected officials can do on social media. Elected officials have a role at your agency that is inherently different from regular staff. Your social media policy — or a separate one unique to electeds — should be very clear in social media guidance for elected officials. You want to be specific about what they can and can’t do, but still encourage their use of social media.


While there are many things elected officials shouldn’t do on social media, there are also a few that they can’t do. At least, if they don’t want to violate any laws.

Federal and state open meetings laws ensure that the actions of public bodies are conducted openly and citizens are given proper notice. If a quorum of any public body (usually three or more elected officials) merely comment on the same social media post, they could be in violation of open meeting laws. Make sure your electeds know this.

Does your agency have administrative or communications staff who maintain social media profiles for elected officials? While this is a common practice, it’s important to make sure everyone (staff and electeds) is aware of what needs to happen during campaign season.

Public employees can’t use, or be directed to use, official government profiles to campaign for candidates or for ballot measures. This is because government funds, including staff time, can’t be allocated toward pushing a particular candidate or referendum. There is a fine line between educating the public about various sides of a ballot issue and violating campaign laws, so always include your agency’s legal counsel when you’re crafting your policy language and training program.


Keep in mind that elected officials can be sued for blocking Twitter users. Our First Amendment protects freedom of speech from government interference, and governments need to be cautious about censoring an individual’s right to free speech. If a commissioner or council member blocks a social media user, it could be argued that they are blocking future speech made by that person. If your sheriff, for instance, deletes a negative comment, that could be construed as blocking free speech. Your electeds should be educated about how these laws are interpreted with their social media profiles. Again, involve your legal counsel in these decisions.


How do you get elected officials engaged with your agency’s social media efforts? Here’s a pro tip: Always show them the results of engagement that they produced. For example, if they participated in a live video, share with them a brief report showing them the impressions, the reach, the comments. When they see how their participation resulted in tangible interactions, they are more likely to remain connected to your social media program.

Help your elected officials to be comfortable about embracing social media, tempered with the knowledge of what they can and can’t do on social platforms.