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Establishing Effective Social Media Policies for your Agency


February 24, 2015 by Josh Mahar
Category: Social Media

Establishing Effective Social Media Policies for your Agency

With Facebook now at over 1 billion users and Twitter nearing 300 million, it is hard to ignore social media as an integral part of citizen and community engagement. Local governments should, and are, jumping into the social media arena to both disseminate important government information and to gauge public opinion on projects and initiatives. That said, social media can  be a double-edged sword. Although there are low barriers to getting involved on social media, there are resource and time commitments that come with it. Further, as some agencies are learning, a few missteps on social media can have serious negative consequences.

To ensure your agency uses social media as effectively as possible, I've put together a few key elements you should consider prior to diving in. Ideally, your agency should codify this information in a clear social media policy that all social media managers and department heads adhere to. I've sprinkled a few of my favorite examples  in the post below, but you can find a broader list in our sample document library.

Identify a purpose and goals.

It’s best to begin simply with your objective; don’t do social media just to do social media. Establishing the goals of your social media presence will help create some boundaries for how social media managers use it, and also provide a baseline for measuring success. A good example is Cheney’s purpose of using social media: “As a channel for disseminating time-sensitive information as quickly as possible and as a communications tool which increases the City’s ability to broadcast its messages to the widest possible audience.” Some jurisdictions, such as Bonney Lake and King County, require departments or programs to submit social media proposals for each account that they start to clarify a need and purpose for that distinct social presence.

Clarify the logistics.

As with any program, the devil is in the details. For the most part, social media details will need to be flexible and experimental,  but there are a number of logistical considerations worth spelling out in an agency-wide policy at the outset.

  • Frequency of posting - It may be useful to set up a minimum posting frequency to ensure your accounts stay consistent. Bonney Lake requires updates “at least once per week”.
  • Voice and tone -  You will need to decide how formal you’d like your social media accounts to be. You can lean toward the professional side, like Clallam County which states content should be, “businesslike, courteous, and civil.” Or, maybe you want a little more touch of the personal. Bothell suggests posters consider “signing posts with at least your first name, or name and contact information where appropriate.”
  • Imagery Guidelines - Make sure you clarify issues surrounding required permissions for using other’s content, as well as your own, to ensure compliance with copyright issues (see Redmond’s policy).
  • Accessibility - Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act requires that electronic information is accessible to people with disabilities. This can be hard on social media, but should be considered. One way to address this is to require clear descriptions and captions whenever imagery is used, as Bothell does.

Define the rules of public Engagement.

Discussion, interaction, and engagement are a crucial part of social media. Encourage this, but also set up clear limits on what is appropriate. Both Cheney and Clallam County have good examples of content policies, clearly identifying material that will be immediately removed if posted, such as obscene/discriminatory language or commercial advertisements. Don’t forget to post your comment policy publicly, so you can direct people to it if they have questions about why their content was removed.

On the flip side, you should also have a clear policy on how employees respond to comments. Social media conversations can sometimes get heated and when an employee responds, as King County notes, “these statements are made on behalf of county government; therefore employees should use discretion before posting or commenting.” Bothell requires that, “unless the comment can be responded to in one sentence or less, respond with a name and phone number.” They also advise that media inquiries or issues outside the department’s expertise should be directed to the public information officer.

Consider public records issues.

Washington’s courts haven’t fully fleshed out all the details of how the PRA relates to social media, but it’s probably best to assume that your social media information should be available for public disclosure. Make sure you have a discussion about how you will retain these records, whether through purchasing software (some examples here) or another method – Cheney stores social media content in word documents. Remember, whatever your method, these rules should also be applied to private messages and deleted comments or posts. Since social media is a bit different than other public forums, it is a good idea to clearly state to the public that posts on your social media are considered public records.

Call out elected official use.

Due to the Open Public Meetings Act, social media becomes even more complex for elected officials, since their online conversations may be illegal. Some jurisdictions, like Cheney, have a whole separate policy for how elected officials use social media. At the very least, you should clarify what they can and can’t do, for example, Bonney Lake asks elected officials to, “not comment or otherwise communicate on the City’s Social Media site(s).”

Establish a review process.

Finally, build in a review process for your social media use. Social media is one of the most dynamic forms of communication, and what’s working today, may not work tomorrow. Bothell has one of the most robust review processes.  The public information officer is responsible for conducting an audit of social accounts every six months, “to ensure they are being maintained in compliance with policies and guidelines…” They have also established a Bothell 2.0 working group that consist of social media and other employee web contributors. At monthly meetings they share experiences, highlight tips, and review recent issues, challenges, or questions.

For further information on social media and local government see the MRSC social media webpage.


Image courtesy of Simon A.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Josh Mahar

Josh joined MRSC in September 2013 as the organization’s first Communications Coordinator. His professional experience includes strategic communications work for the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), Portland State University, and the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods. Josh has also been heavily involved with local government, working on urban policy issues with Forterra and the Seattle P-Patch program, along with a stint on the Capitol Hill Community Council. Josh has two degrees from the University of Washington, a bachelor’s degree from the Jackson School of International Studies and a master’s degree from the Evans School of Public Affairs.

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