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.
However, 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.
Based 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.
The 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.
Commanders 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.
In 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.
Government 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.
Reason 2: Like It Or Not, Social Media Accounts Are The Voice of Your Agency
“Was that in the Times? … No, I read it on Facebook”
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.
This 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.
At 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 relations office.
Credibility 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.
Now 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 say.
Social 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.
Put 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 landmine.
The 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.
A 2011 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.
No 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 crime”
Artfully 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.
Brownback’s 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.
Crucial 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.
The 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 Life-and-Death Consequences
“When disaster 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.
However, 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.
Large-scale 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 controversy.
There 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 Politico”
Social 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.
Already, 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 schoolteacher recently 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 spokesman.
Law 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.
Law 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.
Defense lawyers 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.
Simply 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.
During 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 inoculated.
Not 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 citizens’ concerns.
The 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.
Our 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 government agencies.