August 10, 2017

Clarify Your Message With a Social Media Policy

Illustration of one man stopping another from stepping over a line.

The perfect social media post is often a blend of elements: a great picture, the right tone, a bit of sarcasm, and a lot of humor. While chasing that perfection, we social media managers must also be professional and uphold our brand.

As a government agency, our marketing strategy is slightly different. Our goal isn’t always “selling” our services; oftentimes we are working to inform citizens about the services we offer and share ways they can improve their lives.

One looming question remains: How do we maintain a social media presence — both personally and as a social media manager — without violating agency policies, disclosing confidential information, or crossing the line?

Certain people throughout the country are responsible for their agency’s social media presence. But even riskier are the hundreds of thousands of government employees in the U.S. with their own personal social media accounts. All of these personal accounts can cause more damage than the limited agency accounts if there’s no expectation set of what is allowed and what isn’t.

Wise agencies have policies to cover both personal and professional social media use.

Personal Use of Social Media

As long as there are jobs, there will always be people who complain. And now with social media, we seem to be bombarded with more negativity — whether in reference to a job or other stresses. While freedom of speech protects much of what an employee complains about in regards to their job, social media has changed the dynamic of how we complain and what is “allowed” on social media, from a professional standpoint.

In 2014, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) made it illegal for a private organization to punish an employee for publicly complaining about their work on social media if their complaints are working towards creating a better work environment. However, the NLRB ruling does not apply to government agencies. In fact, in recent years, many agencies around the country have taken it upon themselves to create their own agency-specific policy regarding acceptable personal use of social media. It’s a good thing, too. Social media policies not only protect agencies, but also inform employees of what they can or can’t be disciplined for.

Remember, complaining to a coworker over lunch is much different than posting it on social media. While a lunch conversation might be overheard by a few people, when employees complain on social media, the potential audience to “overhear” these complaints is much larger. That’s something agencies must consider when creating their social media policies.

It doesn’t matter if an employee shares who their employer is or not on their social media sites; a simple Google search can easily render that information. Whether we like it or not, as agency employees, we are held to a higher standard when it comes to what we share on social media, just like public officials, teachers, police officers, and firefighters. In fact, the General Services Administration’s (GSA) social media policy advises its employees to always assume anything they post on personal social sites is seen by everyone and can be misunderstood, despite the strictest privacy settings. Legally, even if your job or employer isn’t listed on your social sites, consequences can follow if they find you violating their policy.

A good rule of thumb, and one our team includes in our policy, is to always assume that what is shared on social media will be read by team members and other agency employees. Remember, even if you’re not posting content that requires disciplinary action, negative comments about your job or other team members can create an employee morale issue, a hostile environment, and reflect negatively on the department as a whole.

What to include

Like I said before, having an employee use policy is not just to protect the agency. An employee use policy also lets employees know what they can post on social media and what is not acceptable. Below, I’ve listed a few items that we have in our social media policy:

  • “Retweets do not equal endorsement”
    Stating that “Retweets,” “Likes,” or “Sharing” does not mean you are endorsing the product, idea, or thought, will not always be sufficient if an issue arises. Recent court rulings have found public servants guilty of “Liking” a thought or idea because it was a negative or racially-charged post. If you think it’s questionable content, just keep scrolling!
  • Agency disclaimer
    It’s a good idea to use an agency disclaimer on your own personal social media accounts, like: “The postings on this site are my own and don’t reflect or represent the opinions of the agency for which I work.”
  • Don’t reference your position in an unofficial manner
    As an employee with personal social media accounts, you may run across questions or issues that you have knowledge about; however, if you comment on or answer these questions you should do so in an unofficial capacity, never referencing your agency or job position. If a comment requires your attention, you should check with an agency authority prior to responding.

Agency Use of Social Media

If your agency has even one social media site, you need to have a social media policy.

Without one, citizens can comment and post nearly anything they want to your agency site without any consequences. If you delete a comment because it contains profanity or references a topic that’s inappropriate for your social site, you need to have a policy to support your decision to delete that comment.

I’ve recently written about open records laws and how they apply to all digital content, including social media. This is where your policy will come in handy. If your policy explicitly states that profanity is not acceptable on your social media page, then you have every right to remove it. But, without a policy, removal of comments and posts gets tricky because citizens have the freedom to post most anything they want.

Just as we want our employees to know what is not acceptable to post, we also need to let our citizens know. We all want our citizens to engage with us, but we want to foster an atmosphere for ideas and discussion. Therefore, it’s important to let your citizens know what you reserve the right to hide or delete. Some restricted content on our pages include comments that:

  • Are threatening, discriminatory, obscene, derogatory, profane, or hateful
  • Contain offensive terms that target protected classes
  • Harm the reputation of any person or organization
  • Suggest or encourage violent or illegal activity

You might also want to include a note about commercial endorsements. Most government agencies are strict about who they partner with, advertise with, and endorse. If you are retweeting or re-sharing content, be sure to state in your policy that you are not endorsing that organization. Remember, all content posted on social media can be misunderstood or misconstrued.

Final Thoughts

A personal use policy not only protects your agency but also shows your employees that you care. It’s impossible to ban your employees from social media, so do the next best thing and tell them upfront how you expect they portray themselves and your agency online.

And don’t take lightly the agency policy. Social media archiving and policies go hand-in-hand. You need both to protect your agency and if you have both you will have something to fall back on should someone ever call anything into question.

Take the time to write your policy and implement it. See what other state, local, and federal agencies have included in their policies. In the coming weeks, we’ll publish our own policies on our site for your reference. For now, you can reference these social media policies:

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