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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.

MISTAKE #1: MIXING THE PERSONAL WITH THE PROFESSIONAL RELATED

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.”

MISTAKE #2: INVOLVING STAFF IN CAMPAIGNS

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.

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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.

DOES YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA POLICY EVEN ADDRESS 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.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELECTED OFFICIALS CAN’T DO ON SOCIAL?

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.

DELETING COMMENTS AND BLOCKING USERS

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.

ENCOURAGING ENGAGEMENT

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.

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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.

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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.