Government Social Media has Come a Long Way

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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.


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.


City of Reno Proclaims June 30 as “Social Media Day”

As the host city of the first-ever state and local government social media conference this past April, the City of Reno, Nevada is the latest government agency to issue a proclamation naming June 30, 2015, as “Social Media Day”.

Social Media Day is the sixth-annual global celebration of social media. Conceived by Mashable in 2010, the day has become an opportunity for communities to connect and collaborate digitally and offline with citizens.


Celebrate Social Media Success with Management & Elected Officials

Kristy Fifelski reporting to City of Reno Council in 2010

We’re all pretty good about sharing tweets and Facebook posts that commend our agency for doing something well. After all, we want other citizens to see that we’re really helping.

Facebook post from citizen
Post from citizen on City of Reno, NV Facebook page. (click to enlarge)

But don’t forget to share those successes inside your agency as well. It doesn’t have to be an incredibly formal report (like the presentation I gave in the photo to Reno City Council), but even something like a quick email helps. Perhaps you can reserve an area on your employee intranet or internal news blast.