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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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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.

WHY IS HIDING COMMENTS DIFFERENT FROM DELETING THEM?

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.

WHY IS THAT BAD?

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.

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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.