By Mark Malseed, Executive Editor, and Andrew Einhorn, CEO
The popularity of social media
across many different demographic groups has allowed for an unprecedented level
of openness and connectedness, which also provides substantial opportunities
for “good government.” By using inexpensive and widely accessible social media
platforms, government agencies can engage and communicate with a citizenry
eager for conversation in ways previously impossible or impractical.
employee use of social media is not without risk. In the absence of a formal,
institutionalized policy on social media communications, there is a very real
possibility of the rapid spread of misinformation, unauthorized leaks of
classified or sensitive material, and damaging off-the-cuff interactions that
can cause public relations nightmares. To many people, a government agency’s
social media accounts are the voice
of the agency now. These accounts — whether on Facebook and Twitter or other
smaller platforms — are critical to maintaining a credible dialogue with
citizens. Establishing a clear, defined social media policy is critical to
maintaining an accurate, useful, and productive conversation with the public.
on a review of how agencies at all levels and branches of government have
responded to recent critical events and controversies that involve social
media, this paper offers 7 reasons why every government agency should have a
social media policy.
Reason 1: Social Media Poses Risks
to Agency Operational Security
“Loose Tweets can sink fleets”
Social media’s emphasis on
“sharing” is inherently at odds with most military operations, which rely
heavily on secrecy and closely-guarded knowledge. Yet social networks are an
unavoidable and indispensable reality for the military, which leverages social
media for communications among commanders, servicemembers and their families,
recruits, and the general public. The challenge for military leaders is how to
exploit the benefits of social media without compromising operational security,
which could put lives at risk.
leaking of classified or sensitive information via social media by military and
defense personnel is not uncommon. In 2010, Ministry of Defense employees in
the United Kingdom leaked
sensitive information via social networking sites sixteen times over
eighteen months. That same year, Israeli Defense Forces cancelled an operation
in the West Bank because a soldier
posted details about the time and place of the raid on Facebook.
have responded by formulating policies that govern how military personnel may
use social media. These policies delve deep into specifics, as even small
oversights can lead to significant consequences in a highly networked world.
2010, the Pentagon lifted the ban on social media use, but the Department of
Defense still imposes fairly strict regulations on posts by servicemembers. The
U.S. Army’s Social
Media Handbook includes a detailed outline of how soldiers should use
social media. For example, soldiers are instructed to turn off the GPS function
on their smartphones. They are also advised to avoid “geotagging” their posts —
a feature that automatically or manually adds location information — to avoid
revealing clues that may disclose their whereabouts. Soldiers are also
encouraged to carefully review photos and videos before posting them online.
agencies involved in intelligence, diplomacy, homeland security and criminal
investigations face challenges similar to the military with respect to social
media sharing and operational security.
2: Like It Or Not, Social Media Accounts
Are The Voice of Your Agency
“Was that in the Times? … No, I read it on
In the effort to inform citizens,
government agencies generate a lot of front-page news, produce a lot of paper,
and send a lot of mail. These longstanding methods of communicating have been
supplemented — even supplanted — in recent years by social media, which enables
faster, cheaper and more direct connections with the public. Many agencies have
begun the transformation to a more nimble public affairs model that leverages
the advantages of social media, but few have made the leap entirely.
is dangerous ground for agencies, as the public (including the news media) now
expects to be able to find official government information on social media. Any
agencies that are still treating their Facebook, Twitter and other social
accounts as untended gardens will face an increasingly frustrated constituent
base. People expect fresh, accurate, authoritative information from the
government accounts they follow. Often, they turn to Twitter before turning on
the news. Agencies that haven’t solidified a policy on how they will use social
media for reaching and interacting the public are at risk of being overwhelmed
by these new expectations.
the moment, one Twitter account of the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, @CDCemergency, has more
than 1.3 million followers. Credibility and accuracy are crucial to the mission
of the CDC, and this must translate to the agency’s social media postings,
which have become a primary channel for the agency’s communications with the
public. It does, thanks to an institutionalized policy. A key component of the
CDC’s policy is a specific, tightly-regulated social
media guide, which includes a detailed process for tweets that usually have
to be approved by standard clearance channels. The policy also takes into
account the serious and provocative nature of some of the CDC’s work, noting
that posts about a “controversial” topic may need to be cleared by the media
and trust are critical to maintaining an effective dialogue with the public.
Delegating front-line communications to inexperienced employees or interns can
be risky. (Even feeding interns “pre-approved” material only gets the
organization so far, as simply posting pre-approved content defeats a key
strength of social media: the quick response time and personal tone.) In an
ideal world, comprehensive training and a clear policy would be part of any
delegating of social media responsibilities to junior staff. But the reality is
communications staffers are often set loose and expected to learn on the fly,
leaving policy guidelines as the only real direction they have. Agencies that
lack a detailed social media policy are at a distinct disadvantage, especially
if any sort of PR crisis were to erupt.
that social media is the quickest and, often, the most productive way of
communicating with the public, agencies need to recognize that what they say on
these platforms is treated as official. A comprehensive policy that covers the
strategy and tactics of social media communications will help this new agency
“voice” remain mission-focused.
Reason 3: Anyone Can Use (and
Abuse) Social Media
“We are ALL communicators now”
The traditional model of public
affairs in government agencies had been to keep tight control of outgoing communications.
Typically, only high-level officials and designated publicists were authorized
to speak on behalf of an agency. Often these representatives had the benefit of
media training and years of experience in knowing what to say and how to say
it. More importantly, they knew what not to
media has disrupted this model, by giving anyone with a Facebook or Twitter
account an easy mouthpiece for reaching the public. At a government agency,
still only a few may be authorized to speak to the media or issue press
releases — yet the vast majority of employees now use social media to broadcast
information about their lives and work. A significant number self-identify as
an employee of a particular agency or the U.S. government. Even among those who
don’t disclose their place of employment, enough public information exists
online (via LinkedIn and other directories) that virtually anyone using a real
name can be linked to his or her government workplace.
another way, every agency now has a cadre of unofficial communicators who are not trained or closely controlled.
This is a scary proposition for agency leaders. While much of what these
employees are posting to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and other sites
is harmless and unrelated to agency duties, any post has the potential to be a
best defense that agency leaders have is a thorough policy on the proper use of
social media. The policy needs to explain who is authorized to be the social
media “voice” for the agency and what precautions non-authorized employees
should take in their postings to avoid erroneous tweets, inappropriate Facebook
updates, and general unprofessional communication with the public.
report by the Altimeter Group that detailed the rise of social media crises
noted that “companies with a policy in place are more likely to have employees
who know how to safely represent the brand in social media: 62% compared to 23%
of companies that did not.” The report also lists a lack of a formal policy and
internal education as prime factors in social media crises.
matter who manages an agency’s social media presence, all employees are
potential spokespersons, for better or worse. Having a clear and established
social media policy will help reduce communication blunders, and minimize
damage if they do occur.
Reason 4: Mistakes, When They
Happen, Will Go Viral
“The cover-up is always worse than the
managing a public relations crisis can be difficult, and social media has only
increased the speed, visibility, and damaging effects of bad publicity. In November of 2011, a Kansas high school
student named Emma Sullivan tweeted some unkind
things about Governor Sam Brownback. Brownback’s staff hastily and clumsily
responded to Sullivan, and before they knew it, the politician found himself in
the middle of a full-blown public relations nightmare.
staff responded unprofessionally to Sullivan’s tweet (which went out to a very
small number of people). It should have been ignored, or at least managed more
maturely. A thought-out, measured response may have even been well-received by
Sullivan and her friends. Instead, the embarrassing Twitter feud went viral and
became national news.
to the management of any social media crisis is reacting quickly, but not
hastily. Agencies with a social media policy that enables both speed and
openness are best positioned to weather any storm. Lessons can be drawn from
the private sector: When Toyota came under fire for faulty accelerator pedals
in some vehicles, the resulting
recall was initially a PR disaster for the company. But Toyota chose an
interesting and innovative approach to managing the crisis: it confronted the
bad press directly using social media. President Jim Lentz appeared on a
28-minute interactive chat where he answered questions presented by the online
community Digg. This made the company seem not only willing, but eager to
address concerns about the safety of Toyota vehicles.
sharing-centric landscape of social media ensures that if negative information
exists, it will get out. And if it gets out, it will spread quickly. Agencies
must prepare for the worst by creating a social media policy that gives their
official communicators the power to share openly and act quickly.
Reason 5: Social Media Has
strikes, people turn to Twitter”
Due to its ubiquity and ease of
use, social media has become a major player in a variety of emergency
situations and disaster-relief efforts. Twitter and Facebook have proven to be
fairly resilient alternatives to overloaded cellular phone networks in some
recent situations. Additionally, these sites have the ability to broadcast
important messages widely and faster than even radio or TV. Their use in future
emergency situations will be even more pronounced.
social media is not a panacea. There can be serious and life-threatening
consequences from misusing social media in a crisis or disaster scenario. In
2011, rescue efforts after the tsunami disaster in Japan were hampered by
misleading and confusing tweets, according to a report
by International Journal of Web Based
Communities. “The biggest problem was the reliability of Twitter updates,
particularly in calls for help, that were misplaced or lies,” the report noted.
Government agencies must have a system in place for verifying the authenticity
of their outgoing social media communications in times of crisis, and for
deciding how to verify and respond to incoming reports from the field.
disasters are the most public instances of social media affecting rescue operations,
but agencies should also be prepared for individual or small-group crises that
arise on social media. Social services agencies, for example, may be confronted
with urgent posts concerning depression, suicide, domestic abuse, or other
potentially life-threatening issues. Having a clear escalation policy for how
to respond is essential to providing the necessary help and steering clear of
are other potential dangers. A 2011 report by the Congressional Research
Service said that terrorist groups have been known to use social media networks
to plot attacks. “Social media could be used as a tool for such purposes by
issuing calls for assistance to an area, or notifying officials of a false
hazard or threat that requires a response,” the report stated. It recommended a
social media policy that accounts for this reality: “When using social media
for situational awareness and response efforts, officials and first responders
should be aware it could be used for malicious purposes and develop measures to
mitigate those possibilities.”
Reason 6: For Public Employees on
Social Media, There Is No ‘Private’
“What happens in Vegas … winds up on
media has blurred the lines between employees’ work and personal lives.
Recently, three junior Congressional staffers were caught
on Twitter posting about drinking on the job and insulting their boss.
Although the staffers were tweeting from personal accounts, their identities
were eventually discovered and they were fired. It’s not hard to imagine a
similar situation involving loose-cannon employees on social media that does
far more damage than the mild embarrassment this Congressman suffered.
local governments and public education officials have had to deal with a number
of cringe-inducing cases. A Patterson, N.J., schoolteacher was suspended
after describing herself as a “warden for future criminals.” Another New Jersey
came under investigation for making anti-gay remarks on her Facebook page.
The New Jersey
teacher’s union was able to respond by pointing to its social media policy,
which included clear guidelines such as: "Don't ever friend or follow your
students on Facebook or Twitter, never post during work hours or using work
materials such as a school computer, and certainly never post anything about
your job online, especially about students," according to a union
enforcement agencies have come into the spotlight too, with several
high-profile public relations controversies arising from misuse of social
media. In Albuquerque, N.M., a police officer was demoted for
listing his occupation as “human waste disposal” on his Facebook page. In one
2009 case, charges against a man accused of illegal gun possession were dropped
after it was discovered that the arresting officer had listed his mood as
“devious” on his MySpace page and said he was “watching ‘Training Day’ to brush
up on proper police procedure.” More recently, police officers in San
Francisco, Calif., inadvertently announced
an impending raid on the local Occupy encampment, prompting the call for
tighter social media policies.
enforcement has recognized the need for tighter control over the postings of
police officers. According to a report
by Police Chief Magazine, “Law
enforcement managers must convey to officers that comments and statements made
in the cyber world are openly public and are preserved for everyone to see in
perpetuity. Whether items are posted on a Facebook page, MySpace page, or blogs
commenting on a newspaper article or YouTube video, specific rules need to be
put in place to protect not only the officer, but the officer’s credibility,
and the image of the agency.
are watching. They are increasingly scouring social media accounts of law
enforcement officers involved in cases to look for statements or other evidence
that may help exonerate their clients.
put, all public sector employees need to be mindful of the reduced boundaries
between personal and public life online, and manage their social media activity
accordingly. Having a social media policy to help guide those individual
actions will yield the best results.
Reason 7: Social media is your best
defense against rumors & myths
“In war and
online, truth is the first casualty”
The key advantages of social media are
also its biggest weaknesses. Social networks can be incredibly effective for
disseminating information quickly to a large audience. But when that
information is outdated, inaccurate or outright falsified, there is the very
real risk that large swaths of people will be misinformed and misled.
Fortunately, trust and confidence in what’s being said can quickly be regained
by issuing clear, decisive information via social media, and backing it up with
communications on other platforms.
the H1N1 flu epidemic, the Internet was full of misinformation about the
disease. One rumor said that increasing salt intake could help to guard against
the flu. The World Health Organization had to devote time to debunking
the rumor. Others questioned the effectiveness of the vaccines and spouted
conspiracy theories. The CDC and other public health organizations had to work
swiftly and consistently to counter these myths and encourage people to get
only do health organizations have to make sure that their information is
accurate and scientifically sound, they have to develop policies that recognize
and address myths,
misinformation, and malicious social media that run contrary to their mission.
Social media is a powerful method
of communication, one that more and more governments are embracing. By and
large, social media sites are proving to be effective ways of having a
conversation with the public, pushing out useful information, and addressing
bevy of unofficial communications and social media sharing that now take place
have many potential benefits for better government, and should not be stifled.
But they must be managed in an instructive way. However, agencies will find
that having a formal, clearly-defined social media policy will help to
safeguard secure information, maintain a credible and honest dialogue with the
public, and enable them to accomplish their goals more effectively.
military is a global force, with over a million servicemen who have access to
social media sites, making security all the more essential. More and more,
public employees are finding that their professional and private lives are one
and the same, and that their private online behavior can
affect their employment. Law enforcement is finding that their social media
habits can jeopardize not only their careers, but the cases that they work on.
Critical public health and disaster relief outlets are finding that not only
are their social media presences’ critical, but they must also develop new ways
of countering misinformation as well. Having a well-planned and
well-implemented social media policy has never been more important for
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