Social Media Best Practices for Elected Officials

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Communication with constituents is essential to running a government. But sometimes officials can find themselves in a tough spot if they’re not aware of how certain actions on social media are perceived or if those actions cause more harm than good.

Here are best practices for elected officials on social media:

1. Create a policy, and stick to it!

As with most government functions, this another area where a policy important to have. Be clear about what comments can and can’t say.

The policy should be consistent with federal at state opens meetings laws, wrote Kristy Dalton of GovGirl.com. In addition, be aware of elections laws, she advises, as public employees can’t use official accounts for campaigning or ballot measures.  

A 2015 study by the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz found that only 4 percent of area agencies had a social media policy. In one case, a lack of policy at in a sheriff’s department caused a ideological rift when its official social media accounts were being used to push out the sheriff’s personal views. It distracted from the official business of the county government that would otherwise keep citizens informed, the center found.

 2. Avoid using private accounts for official business 

While personal business is strongly advised to be left off official accounts, the same goes for the flipped situation.  

Blurring the line between public and private social media interaction has unintended and undesirable consequences, Hana Callaghan, director of the government ethics program at Santa Clara University,  wrote for Governing Magazine.  

It can make transparency and legal boundaries tricky, she advised. Don’t use a private Facebook page being used in an official capacity and public business. Again, be clear on what’s public and what’s not.

Callaghan pointed to how in one California case, the state Supreme Court ruled that when local public official used private emails for public business, the correspondence is subject to disclosure. “It seems a good bet that discussing government business on private Facebook accounts would subject officials to the same public scrutiny,” she wrote.

Did you know that social media exchanges, if between a quorum of elected officials, where public policy or any official business is discussed or voted could be considered a meeting?

 3. Don’t block social media users

When elected officials block users, they run the risk of violating freedom of speech and preventing certain people from seeing important information that would otherwise be public. Officials can face legal action for doing so.

Last year, ProPublica shared steps for local reporters to discover whether their elected officials are blocking constituents on Facebook and Twitter. The organization explained why that’s important to find out and the implications it has:

“When the administrator of a public Facebook page blocks an account, the user can no longer comment on the page. That can create an inaccurate public image of support for government policies.”- ProPublica

 This year, the ACLU of Nebraska received complaints from citizens who several officials blocked on social media. The organization warned that doing so could be legally be perceived as a violation of the First Amendment because someone is being blocked from speech before it happens and they are denied access to public information.

4. Think before clicking send

The Southern California Latino Policy Center advises officials to keep the fast pace and ease of social media in mind. Proofread your posts. Don’t hit send on anything written in anger or haste. Have someone you trust read your post before it goes out to the public. 

Think about each post as if it were going out on your personal stationary...And remember, sometimes the story is not about what you said but how you said it.”- Southern California Latino Policy Center

Miranda Lutzow