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Getting Started: Designing a social media policy

Many agencies have either adopted or are in the process of adopting social media tools for official business. In doing so, the need for a new policy to address the issues connected to social media use in a governmental context has become increasingly clear. Yet, as we have found in our research, relatively few have implemented formal social media policies and/or guidelines. Policies that regulate the users of these emerging technologies for personal, professional, and agency reasons can create clarity for employees, as well as provide direction for agencies on how to address potential legal and regulatory issues.

In addition to considering the essential eight elements, the following strategies provide some further guidance for those just getting started.
  • Determine goals and objectives for using social media tools.
    While ideally an agency would create a social media policy prior to allowing access to or creating social media accounts, for many, policy creation is done retroactively. Either way, a social media policy should be modeled after the current or planned use of social media tools and strategies to ensure the alignment of objectives and social media policy. For example, if an agency’s main objective is engagement and two-way communication with its constituents, then devising a policy that does not allow for external comments on an agency’s social media page would effectively eliminate any chance of reaching its strategic goal of engagement.

  • Bring together a multi-functional team including all stakeholders from communication, legal, technology, human resources, and program units.
    Whether it is to create policy, or periodically review policies, a team of experts from the legal, communications, technology, human resources, and program units can speak to the variety of issues emerging from the use of social media in government agencies. There are many grey areas in the social media arena and paying attention to different view points is necessary to keep the policies aligned with an agency’s goals and objectives.

  • Identify existing policies that apply to the use of social media tools.
    Before creating a social media policy from scratch, consider to what extent the issues being raised by social media use are connected to issues already covered by existing policies or regulations. Often existing policies provide guidance on issues such as acceptable use, employee access, or ethical conduct. In some instances, the text of an existing policy may be revised to address use within a social media context and in other instances can remain unchanged. Seventeen of the reviewed documents referenced an existing policy such as an Acceptable Use Policy or a Statement of Employee Code of Conduct.

  • Discuss conflicts or inconsistencies between proposed and existing policies and procedures.
    In some agencies, the introduction of social media tools might represent a change in the typical rules of engagement such as in the way professionals are expected to interact or changes in the way an agency engages with the public. Thus, a review of existing policies should ensure that the proposed social media policy and its implication for employees are not in contradiction to existing policies or procedures. Inconsistencies may occur across a spectrum of issues such as passwords or an agency’s official public position. For example, agencies may need to decide how to address password requirements for social media sites, which may differ from existing policies. Conflicts may also arise when access to the public is allowed through social media sites. The question of when and who can “speak” on behalf of the agency may need clarification if existing policy states that all media or outside requests for information must only come through a public information officer.

Creating a policy for the use of social media policy by a government agency is not a simple task. One not only has to contend with an ever-changing landscape of the social media environment, but also with the various ways government employees are using these tools to do their work. And, as with any other policy, social media policies should be reviewed periodically to ensure that they continue to reflect the agency’s changing strategy and priorities. This report should serve as a brief guide for governments who are in the process of crafting their social media policy or are simply thinking about embarking on this journey.