Social media outlets can be great for distributing the public information that local governments generate. They also are a powerful forum for public debate on the issues of the day. At the personal level, social media can be how we stay connected and communicate with friends and family.
But both at the individual and organizational level, defining with clarity an appropriate strategy for use of social media is often a challenge. Perhaps good or bad social media usage is akin to pornography—hard to describe or define in advance, but you sure do know it when you see it!
As part of the dialogue about Tenet 12 of the ICMA Code of Ethics and related guidelines, the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct drafted a guideline on social media to assist members. The draft stated: “To preserve impartiality and not compromise their objectivity, members should exercise common sense when using social media platforms to express their views and opinions, and refrain from postings that undermine the ethical principles of the Code of Ethics.”
Significant Member Reaction
That statement generated lots of feedback from members. Many observed that the guideline was unnecessary. The Code already requires members to act with high integrity in personal and professional conduct in order to merit the trust of those they serve. So why have a standard around social media?
Given the infiltration of social media into so many aspects of life and the impact of social media, numerous other members supported some professional statement on the matter. From their perspective, the draft version was too vague and recommended more detailed rules of engagement. Common sense is, after all, not so common. And relying on one’s own discretion isn’t helpful for those who may not have good judgment or impulse control.
Not surprisingly, there was general consensus that all public administrators and leaders need to maintain proper and ethical behavior on social media. Here are notable observations from colleagues:
- Social media is just another form of public speech. Would you be willing to read your comments from Facebook or Twitter on the steps of city hall, at a press conference, or in another public forum? If the answer is no, then the content is not appropriate. How is social media different than, say, a letter to the editor or an e-mail to a resident?
- Is it personal or professional? Should the guideline require that the member disclose whether or not he or she is speaking in a professional or personal capacity? And is it even possible to draw such a clear distinction?
One member noted that local government managers in particular should not express their personal views or opinions on social media platforms because the audience will not make the distinction between the individual as a private resident versus the individual as the manager. They will give weight to the comments because the member is the manager and view it as representative of the local government’s position.
- On the flipside, some members viewed the guideline as not providing enough leeway. A member who freely expresses her opinions on national social issues using her Facebook page, which is open only to her close friends and family members, fully envisions the day when something she has written is perceived negatively in her community. Does being part of the profession require that she give up her right to express her opinion on national issues?
The profession should focus on social media because it is a powerful and new communications channel and one where it’s virtually impossible to un-ring the bell. Too often postings are written in the spur of the moment without proper reflection on the content and potential impact.
- Use of social media is an interesting dilemma. It is fast becoming the preferred communications tool for constituents. Some governing bodies encourage their managers to have a personal blog and be active in social media.
Blogs by their nature are informal, and they are intended to generate response. How do you manage the debate that might occur? What do you do if it gets uncivil? Do you respond to every misstatement posted in a response or just the outrageous ones?
- The expectation of privacy is extremely misleading. One member noted seeing other managers and assistants commenting on elected officials and political candidates in the region and state. As a public official, objectivity is necessary to maintain the public’s trust. Social media posts may have the unintended consequences of creating the appearance of bias.
The ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct reviewed the feedback members offered and is back at the drawing board to develop reasonable and effective guidance on social media.
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