A spate of cases involving allegations of improper social media posts by members has ICMA’s Committee on Professional Conduct (CPC) considering whether additional guidance or clearer standards are needed.
After all, the reputation of the member, their local government organization, and even the profession is at risk when questionable posts occur and then are broadly shared. Perhaps a specific and clear guideline on social media would help members steer clear of inappropriate or unethical comments and posts.
A rule-based standard, like the approach we use to define acceptable political activity, is one way to address how social media is used. However, a deeper dive into the cases that came before the CPC raises a valid question. Is the problem social media? Or is it that regardless of the conduit, it’s the conduct that violates a core value of the profession?
Case in point: whether you offer negative comments about a candidate for elected office by standing in the public square, in an interview with a reporter, or via your Twitter feed, you have crossed the line on political activity. It’s the words, timing, and approach that matter—not just the communication channel.
To assist members in identifying that ethical line, here is a short recap of some of the conduct using social media that raised an ethical concern.
A city manager posted comments online after reading an article that outlined a candidate’s stance on local issues.
He ended with a request that his thoughts be shared broadly within the community. That crossed the line because members should not endorse candidates. Offering an assessment of where a candidate stands on an issue would be viewed as indicating support or opposition to the candidate. Timing matters here as well. Opining on an issue of concern to the community is well within the manager’s purview. But doing so in the middle of a campaign is drawing you into the realm of candidate politics.
What if you don’t say anything but share a link? That depends on what you are sharing.
A city manager reposted a link for the incumbent mayor’s reelection page to her personal Facebook page. That creates the appearance of an endorsement. Best to refrain from liking or commenting on any candidate for elected office whether local, state, or national. When all is said and done, you will need to work with whomever is elected to advance your community’s needs.
An assistant manager used her personal social media account—which had the disclaimer “all posts are my own”—to offer commentary on the policy positions of state and federal elected officials.
Members working for a local government share a right and responsibility to voice their opinion on issues of concern, whether personal or related to their work. However, in this case, she took a stance that was not in alignment with the local government’s position, which undermines the elected officials’ right to establish policy. Given her position in the organization, the disclaimer that her expressions are personal is meaningless. There is a time and place to provide input on policy development. But once the policy is approved by the governing body, you have an ethical obligation to support the policy. If you can’t do so, then exiting the organization is the better option.
Frustrated by the negative and demoralizing tone of a parody city website created by a resident that mocked the efforts of staff, the manager posted a derogatory comment about the site on a personal social media page.
Standing up for your staff is to be applauded, but using derogatory language undermines the effort. Better to be silent, or if compelled to respond, do so respectfully.
Sometimes it is difficult to forget the rearview mirror image. One manager couldn’t refrain from posting very critical comments to media articles about the city he once managed.
Artfully crafted, they never referenced the colleague who now manages the city. Having served as a manager, this person clearly understood the discord the posts would create. Another former manager was far too engaged with city staff who were posting negative comments about the city on Facebook. In one post, he called for the firing of a department director. Relationships with former staff can be ongoing but should not cross the line of criticizing the current management or being disrespectful.
When you find yourself motivated to post on social media in response to a critical or nasty comment made about you or your organization, consider this advice offered by Jason Aten, a technology columnist for Inc. After a post he made on Twitter exploded and he landed in the middle of anyone’s worst nightmare, he offered sage advice.
1. Don’t Panic. Before you respond—or even think about responding—consider this: The Twitter mob is a lot like a group of hungry sharks. It’s attracted to blood in the water. If you start to thrash around, it only attracts more sharks.
2. Admit When You’re Wrong. If you’re being criticized, first consider whether it’s justified. Let’s be honest, we all do dumb stuff sometimes, usually unintentionally. If that’s the case, admit it, fix whatever went wrong, and move on.
3. Don’t Be Defensive. The worst possible thing you can do is to get defensive, even if the criticism is entirely unwarranted. Fighting back might feel good in the moment, but honestly, that shouldn’t be your goal. Your goal should be to identify what part of the criticism is justified and find a way to step offstage as quickly as possible.
4. Ignore the Trolls. Most of the people who pile on when you become the main event are there just for the entertainment. As discouraging as it may be to think that there are people who thrive on the misery or misfortune of others, welcome to social media. Your best bet is to ignore trolls entirely. If you choose to engage, do so with people who are reasonable. As for the rest, I suggest you mute the trolls—especially the ones who keep coming back hoping to get a reaction. If you block them, you just give them the little dopamine fix that comes from thinking they got under your skin.
5. Have a Sense of Humor. No one wants to be the butt of anyone’s joke, especially not online. However, if you find yourself there, you might as well laugh. By the way, a sense of humor has a way of humanizing you to others as well. You won’t believe how quickly people stop trying to make you into a joke when they see you as a person, especially one who doesn’t take themselves too seriously.
For this profession, I would add that those who serve the public have an ethical responsibility to uphold and advance the dignity of public service. When you respond in a respectful and constructive way, you serve to elevate the profession.