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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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3 Ways to Make Social Media in Government a Team Effort

Staff

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

Most of your agency’s employees are not directly involved in managing social media or even contributing content. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (managing 1,000-plus contributors is tricky), but you should consider the benefits of getting all staff members involved with your agency’s social media presence.

Why bother? It’s really hard to present a united front when most of your staff members are unaware of your agency’s social media strategy. Department representatives might not even know what profiles your agency maintains on various platforms. They might also be unaware that they can contribute content (can they?) and the process they can use to do so.

There are likely a large number of staff members who work for your agency, but don’t work with programs that traditionally have public-facing social media content because they are an internal-facing division, such as auditors or fleet maintenance. But there are still opportunities to get them involved with your agency’s social media presence. This leads me to my first recommendation, which speaks to how you develop the social media strategy in the first place.

1. GET DEPARTMENTS INVOLVED IN SOCIAL MEDIA GOAL-SETTING.

A good social media strategy starts off by identifying goals. Involving other departments at this stage ensures that the high-level goals of your organization as well as departments are considered and incorporated from the beginning.

Social media strategies should be unique to each organization — what works for one city or county does not necessarily work for another. A comprehensive social media strategy is guided by a number of variables, ranging from the high-level mission of the agency, to the strategic goals for key departments, to the city’s communication goals. Setting social media goals that complement the government’s guiding principles will help ensure a consistent and meaningful message.

Here’s a pro tip: Many department goals can be found in annual budget documents. While some of them will be very project specific, the higher-level goals may be a perfect fit to incorporate into your social media strategy. Better yet, talk to department representatives and ask them what the long- and short-term goals are. For example, if the public works division has a priority over the next couple of years to conduct major traffic flow infrastructure improvements, that can evolve perfectly into a new social media goal: educating the community about alternative mobility options. Be creative and get agency staff involved in social media goal-setting.

2. EMPOWER STAFF MEMBERS TO MONITOR SOCIAL MEDIA.

A best practice I like to teach is empowering agency staff to monitor social media for citizen activity related to the programs and projects that directly relate to their role. Several free online tools can easily allow staff to monitor keywords and hashtags while also keeping track of conversations and posts related to a specific subject matter. Free tools available today include setting up Google alerts or using Twitter advanced search and social mention services.

3. ENSURE THE AVAILABILITY OF ONGOING SOCIAL MEDIA TRAINING.

Offer regular social media training agencywide for all staff, leadership and elected officials — not just for social media content authors. Consistent training helps employees and electeds stay up-to-date about the policy, rules and legal aspects of posting on social media, as well as stay informed as to why certain social media platforms were selected for an agency presence.