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Social Media Policies

This page provides an overview of various approaches to social media policies for local government staff and officials in Washington State, including sample policy language and examples.

It is part of MRSC's Electronic Records Policy Tool Kit, created in partnership with the Washington State Auditor's Center for Government Innovation.


Overview

Social media is a complex topic from both a legal and policy standpoint. This page focuses on the intersection between social media and the Public Records Act (PRA). For more information about social media policies and their general management, see MRSC's blog Establishing Effective Social Media Policies and the section in this page offering Examples of Internal Social Media Management Policies.

Issues to consider with respect to social media and the PRA include:

  1. Ensuring that the agency has proper procedures in place to retain social media posts and associated comments with respect to official agency (as opposed to personal) social media accounts
  2. Clarifying that use of personal (including campaign) social media accounts should not be used to create public records and providing guidance to agency officials and employees on best practices in that regard.   

With respect to personal social media accounts, there has been clarification from the Washington Court of Appeals that a councilmember's personal Facebook posts do not constitute public records if they are not created within the councilmember’s official capacity. However, it is important to note that there still are situations in which use of a personal social media account may result in creation of a public record. For more information, see West v. City of Puyallup, and MRSC’s blog New Ruling Finds Facebook Posts Can Be a Public Record.


Agency Social Media Accounts

There are several important elements of agency social media policies including the following:

  • Content posted to agency social media accounts is a public record
  • Agencies need to maintain content on agency social media accounts in accordance with applicable retention requirements
  • Posting secondary copies instead of original public records on social media is encouraged to avoid retention problems

Examples

Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Lynnwood

Public Records and Retention: All information posted and other activity conducted on Agency social media sites is subject to the Public Records Act and Office of the Secretary of State Records Management Guidelines and Retention Schedules. 

All Agency social media sites shall contain a statement that all content submitted by users is potentially subject to disclosure pursuant to the Public Records Act, Chapter 42.56 RCW. Where appropriate, users and visitors to the Agency's social media sites should be directed to submit public records requests to the Agency's Public Records Officer.

All information and content on an Agency social media site that is required to be retained under state and local retention policies and guidelines shall be maintained for the required retention period on an Agency server in a format that preserves the metadata of the original record. Prior approval of the retention format and procedures for each Agency social media tool being used shall be obtained from the Communication Officer.

In order to ensure appropriate retention of public records, most content posted by Agency personnel on Agency social media sites should not be original source content (content that has not been created anywhere else and only exists on the social media site), but rather a secondary copy of information that is posted on the Agency website or contained in an electronic copy or a hard copy. If original content is posted on a social media site, that information shall be retained in accordance with the Agency's records retention policies and other applicable laws, for at least the minimum retention period listed for those records beginning the date of posting. Copies of records the Agency already retains elsewhere will be considered secondary copies and shall be retained accordingly. 

Department staff are responsible for ensuring retention of the original-source content in an organized, searchable electronic format. The records should be retained in such a manner that it can be deleted after meeting the required retention periods.

All edits made to posted content and comments posted by outside users on Agency social media sites, including those that are inappropriate and removed by staff, shall be retained as outlined by the governance for each social media tool. When staff edits their posted content or removes inappropriate content, a record of that staff name, date, and time the content was edited or removed shall be retained in an organized, searchable electronic format. The records should be retained in such a manner that it can be deleted after meeting the required retention periods. 

  • Stanwood Social Media Policy (2013) - Contains general public records policy language and then sets forth specific standards for use of Facebook and Twitter at Section 3.3.9 and Section 4.3 respectively.

Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Stanwood

The Agency social media sites are subject to the State of Washington public records laws. Any content maintained in a social media format that is related to Agency business, including a list of subscribers and posted communication, is a public record. Content related to Agency business shall be maintained in an accessible format and so that it can be produced in response to a request. Whenever possible, such sites shall clearly indicate that any articles and any other content posted or submitted for posting are subject to public disclosure. Users shall be notified that public disclosure requests must be directed to the Agency public records officer. 

Washington state law and relevant Agency record retention schedules apply to social media formats and social media content. Unless otherwise addressed in a specific social media standards document, the department maintaining a site shall preserve records required to be maintained pursuant to a relevant records retention schedule for the required retention period in a format that preserves the integrity of the original record and that is easily accessible. Appropriate retention formats for specific social media tools are detailed in the Agency Twitter and Facebook standards incorporated into this policy.        


Personal Social Media Accounts

Some social media policies are limited to agency social media accounts and do not address use of personal social media accounts for discussing issues pertaining to the agency. The policies that address personal social media accounts generally provide information to employees and officials on how to avoid creating public records on their personal accounts. 

Examples

Sample Policy Language - Adapted from King County

You may access your personal social media accounts at work for limited personal communications as long as it doesn’t interfere with your tasks.

Do not use an Agency email address when using social media in personal capacities. For example, don’t create a personal Facebook or Twitter account using your [agency].gov email address.

If you identify yourself as an Agency employee when conducting personal social media activities, consider stating in your profile that your comments are not representative of the Agency. Examples include:

  • Twitter bio: Tweets are my own.
  • Blog or website bio: While I work for [the Agency], anything I publish is my personal opinion and should not be considered the opinions or position of [the Agency].

Whether or not you specify on your personal social media accounts that you work for the Agency, the fact that you are employed by the Agency is public information. Be mindful that whenever you discuss issues in an online platform, whether in a personal or professional capacity, your comments can be tied back to your employment with the Agency.

Nothing in this handbook is meant to prevent an employee from exercising his or her right to make a complaint of discrimination or other workplace misconduct, engage in lawful collective bargaining activity, or to express an opinion on a matter of public concern.

Sample Policy Language - Adapted from Bothell

Social Media Rules: Social media use, whether on or off-duty, that adversely affects an employee’s job performance, the performance of other Agency employees, or that otherwise adversely affects the Agency’s mission and functions may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination. Note that employees have First Amendment freedoms of speech and association, and no discipline will be sustained that violates such rights.

The following additional rules also apply to employees’ use of social media, on and off-duty:

  • Social media content that relates to Agency business may be a public record subject to retention and disclosure under state law. For that reason, except for when assigned as part of their official duties, employees are prohibited from using social media to conduct Agency business.
  • Employees are required to protect and maintain the confidentiality of all private and confidential Agency information.
  • Employees may not create a link from their blog, website or other social networking site to an Agency website if such a link causes the viewer to reasonably believe that the Agency endorses the contents of the employee’s social media site.
  • Employees may not use their Agency email address or the Agency’s official logo for personal online communications or activities. Although employees may identify themselves as employees of the Agency, employees shall not identify themselves in a manner that suggests or implies they are speaking as a representative for the Agency, even when the communication occurs in a private setting. If any confusion is reasonably likely, the employee shall expressly state with a disclaimer that he/she is speaking in a personal individual capacity and not for or on behalf of the Agency.

Examples of Internal Social Media Management Policies 

Below are some examples of policies focused on the general management of social media for agency staff and departments from local jurisdictions. Policies are ordered by jurisdiction type and population size.

Cities over 50,000 population

Cities between 10,000 and 50,000 population

Cities and towns under 10,000 population

Counties over 125,000 population

Counties under 125,000 population

Examples of Special Purpose District Policies


Recommended Resources

Below are some resources that provide best practices and guidelines on social media use for government agencies.


Last Modified: May 31, 2019