Developing Policies for Responsible Social Media Use

Having a social media policy can ensure that government employees utilize social media as a tool and not a distraction.

South Dakota's Secretary of State, Jason Gant, is a recent entrant into the social media world. Last month, his office joined Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube after recognizing that the state leads the nation in per-capita Facebook use (according to one social media consultant), and that social media could be helpful in getting information to citizens.

Setting up these accounts is easy, especially now that the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) and the National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) have worked and are working with social media platforms to alleviate any legal barriers governments face in using social media. But once online, what government officials should and should not say or do is less clear.

Arguably, governments can't tweet or update the same way private citizens can. But the conversational manner of social media means that governments need to adapt their messages to an extent. Toeing the line between chatty and professional is tricky. Imagine the potential backlash if a government employee blurred the lines between his or her personal and professional online presences, published classified information or spouted off on a private citizen's comment on an official state or agency Facebook page. Existing personnel policies, IT access issues and the growing ability to access social media sites on the job (hello, smartphones!) makes addressing social media use tricky.

Without too many long-standing policies or guidelines governing social media use, states are starting to recognize the need to put into writing what employees can and cannot do on social media platforms. One way they are doing this is by looking to see what others are doing. I spoke with Gant and a number of officials in different states to see what policies and guidelines they created and what they address.

North Carolina and Utah created some of the first statewide social media policies in 2009. Both policies, like many around the country, address what information government officials should post. Utah's four pages of guidelines give suggestions for creating content that is valuable for citizens. This includes avoiding overly composed language and encouraging personality in posts. "Share with the participants the things we are learning and doing, and open up social media channels to learn from others," the guidelines say.

North Carolina's nine-page policy outlines what employees can say and what to do if citizen comments become offensive or off topic. When a representative of the state posts on a social media site, that person is "encouraged to be professional in their posts and to assume what is posted cannot be 'taken back,'" says Ben Niolet, director of new media in Gov. Bev Perdue's office. And as far as moderating the comments posted by citizens, agencies are encouraged to use a very light hand. "Profanity or similarly inappropriate content is typically deleted after it has been archived. Occasionally, interest groups will bombard a site with messages, a sort of virtual sit-in. Decisions on how to handle these incidents are made on a case-by-case basis," says Niolet.

Back in South Dakota, Gant wanted to align social media usage with agency goals, including transparency and openness. "We wanted people to feel comfortable posting different things and different feelings and interpretations of activities the office is engaged in," says Gant. "But we wanted to be careful that it didn't turn into information being posted that wasn't appropriate."

As a result, the South Dakota Secretary of State's social media policy was driven by "the best amalgamation of those policies as it applied to South Dakota," says Pat Powers, director of operations in the Secretary of State's office. The policy emphasizes why the office is using social media, ethics to follow, when employees can use social media and how they can address citizen comments.

Once a state or agency has the policies or guidelines in place and participants chosen, the new rules are spread to employees by "social media delegates" or another state representative. It falls to these representatives to drum up excitement and compliance. "We had a number of meetings about what our objectives were ... and everyone's really excited about what we're doing," says Gant.

Having policies in place that govern social media use makes employees responsible for what they say and do, and also gives agencies a course of action if someone violates the privilege of access. According to a majority of state officials I spoke with, including those from South Dakota, employees are punished in accordance with existing personnel policy if a problem does arise.

Sometimes these problems revolve around personal use of social media -- both on and off the clock. Some states aren't addressing personal use of social media in their policies and guidelines because they feel that existing personnel policy drives how an employee behaves outside of the office and how that can reflect on the state. Others are adding a simple sentence into the social media policy and guidelines. States like North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Dakota explicitly include a provision about personal use of social networking sites. For example, "Employees should be mindful of blurring their personal and professional lives when administering social media, Web 2.0 and social networking sites," Oklahoma's policy warns.

Oklahoma employees are allowed to have their own personal social media presence, so long as it is attached to a personal e-mail and not a state e-mail account. If an employee should decide to comment on official state business through a personal account, that employee is required to state his or her name and role in state government, and include a disclaimer, such as, "This posting on this site are my own and don't reflect or represent the opinions of the State of Oklahoma or the agency for which I work." Those in executive or management positions are asked to use extra caution when posting on their personal social media sites because the nature of the position can indicate the expression of official state policy.

Policy on personal social media use during work hours differs state by state. Some states have policies that allow for brief access to personal social media sites as long as it does not interfere with that employee's ability to complete his or her work. In North Carolina, for example, the state policy reads: "During normal business hours, employees may use personal social networking for limited family or personal communications so long as those communications do not interfere with their work."

Gant views things a bit differently. "When you're on official business, that's all you can do," he says. This means that logging onto Facebook or Twitter during working hours is reserved for those given the privilege of officially representing the Secretary of State's office -- and these employees are expected to complete their official business quickly. "Accessing social media for personal interests has nothing to do with an employee's job duties for the Secretary of State's office, and such utilization during working hours is not permitted," the policy states.

The policies in place now are definitely not the last word on social media standards. There is recognition that the policies and guidelines are often living documents that will change as the platforms evolve and new challenges arise. According to Gant, "My goal was that this was our first publishing of the policy and we're probably going to go through a number of revisions with things that are good and bad and just update those and keep moving forward."

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.