Social Media & Public Agencies: Avoid the Risks, Enjoy the Benefits

By Martin Rauch, Rauch Communication Consultants, Inc. and Viveca Hess, HessConnect.

A good place to start with a discussion of social media is that somewhere around 60 percent of all adults in our country use at least one social media network. The biggest and most popular by far is Facebook, but TwitterInstagramPinterestLinkedIn and others are all heavily used. Since a majority of your public is there, you should be there too. Let’s look at some of the benefits and risks of using social media.

Consider the Rewards

Social Media Enhances Your Traditional Outreach. Every public agency outreach program should follow a plan and include a variety of media. Frequent and well-orchestrated communication via several different media such as the press, newsletters and presentations are key to achieving your outreach goals.

Cost Effective. You will get the best return on effort if your social media is built into your overall outreach plan and supported by traditional media. It is also important to have capable, motivated people responsible for it and that there is ongoing oversight.

Increase Your Audience and Integrate Existing Audiences. Social media is especially beneficial at creating conversations that provide an emotional connection: photos, brief stories, examples, quotes, videos and more. This lends interest to traditional media which is often more heavily word-based, longer and only one-way.

It Improves Customers’ Access to You. Good social media implementation will bring you closer to your customers, helping you to build trust through convenient social media forums.

Communicate Efficiently in Emergencies. In an emergency, social media is likely to be the first place reporters and your public look. Studies show that journalists spend more than four hours a day on social media; about half of journalists post content to social media daily.

Avoiding the Risk

Caution: Develop and Enforce Social Media Policies. Many staff and directors utilize social media in their personal lives. Social media for public agencies is different, mostly because of legal issues. Start by exploring what other agencies are doing about policies, get legal advice, and ensure policies are publicized on your site. Some typical areas covered by social media policies include:

Public record or not? Check with your attorney as to whether your social media fits into Public Records Act requirements or not and how it does or does not. Let the public know that their comments may become a public record.

Policies for governing board members. Because many governing board members use social media in their personal lives, policies should include making clear the divide between personal and public use of social media, such as: not engaging in discussions with fellow decision-makers about your agency’s subject matter, and remembering restrictions on using public resources for political purposes. Avoid crossing open meeting laws, common law bias and campaign prohibitions.

Personal Activities. AB 1234 provides guidelines on the use of public resources for personal purposes. Remind employees of decorum—that their private actions may reflect on the agency. Also recognize your employees’ First Amendment rights. Make sure your agency has clear policies around social media use by staff.

Don’t be afraid of negative comments. The whole point of social media is to open a venue for dialogue. As a result, social media will generate many positive comments, but also inappropriate, negative, profane, and off-topic posts. All posts are an opportunity for your agency to listen and offer a timely, thoughtful, response for all participants to see. Clarify misinformation in even, accurate tones and allow your readers to judge any negative comments for what they are. Your openness will earn you trust among many. The public expects an open dialogue and censoring or removing content may not be legal. Make sure you have well thought out policies and training so you know how and when to post, respond and remove.

Removal of content. Identify the types of content that are not acceptable. For example: election campaign material, discriminatory comments, and profanity. Explain under what circumstances content will be removed, how removed information is recorded, and make sure staff is trained and understands.


Getting Started

Every public agency should at least be starting to get engaged in social media. If you haven’t, Facebook is the most popular and a good place to start. Get an account and begin: check out other local government sites for ideas, gain skills and learn over time. Social media is here and it is growing fast. The benefits will accrue to those in the game. The greatest risks lie in wait for those not participating.Tips to help you get started effectively:

  • Begin with a well thought out social media plan: such as topics, messages, and timelines.
  • Use privacy settings that allow your public to access information without having to become a fan or friend.
  • Develop clear and detailed policies.
  • Post regularly, say three times each week, and make it interesting and engaging.
  • Name who will be responsible for posting and responding.
  • Use social media to drive people to your website and other media for more substantial information, and so it is available to those without social media access.
  • Utilize attractive design with your agency’s branding: color, fonts, logo, etc.

Facebook Help Pages. For more detailed instructions, go to www.facebook.com/help then select “Build Your Facebook Page”. Download the Facebook Government Guide 


Rauch Communication Consultants is a full service public outreach and strategic planning firm that collaborates on social media campaigns with Viveca Hess of San Diego-based HessConnect, which specializes in social media services for highly regulated companies such as law firms and public agencies.

 

Reprinted with permission of the California Special Districts Association.

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