Maintaining Public Trust in a Social Media Environment

Tips on how to minimize the potential negative impacts of social media on efforts to foster public confidence and trust.

By Jason Grant, director of advocacy, ICMA | Mar 9, 2020 | BLOG POST

Today, we live in an ever-connected world. We want access to news, information, and services on our own terms. This includes how we interact and communicate with each other. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly three-quarters of the U.S. population use social media to interact with friends and family, access news and information, or just for simple entertainment.

What’s more important to note is that this is not simply some younger generation’s way of communicating. Eighty-two percent of people ages 30-49 and 69% of people ages 50-65 use social media. And the fastest growing adopters? You guessed it…those ages 65 and older.

While the methods for maximizing social media use are case specific and extend beyond the scope of this blog post, we would be remiss if we did not offer some broad guidance on how to minimize the potential negative impacts of social media on efforts to foster public confidence and trust.

To that end, there are two aspects of social media use that get to this point. The first is developing policies that govern the establishment and use of social media platforms by the local government itself. That is, the departments, agencies, and staff members who establish social media platforms that “speak” on behalf of the local government. The second is the ability to manage the personal social media accounts of government employees.

Ultimately, decisions on whether to establish a social media account should be filtered through the office responsible for public communication. Assign one agency the responsibility of determining whether social media accounts should be established, and only set up new accounts if the following will apply:

1. Does the agency have a different audience from the primary platform presence?

For example, your agency responsible for economic development may need a separate platform because it wants to reach site selectors, developers, and business owners nationwide, while your primary platform is intended for local residents.

2. Does the agency have a message that is different from the primary message of the primary platform presence?

For example, police may need a separate platform because they need to report on crime statistics, find wanted individuals, and regularly inform people of necessary safety measures. This could bias your audience in believing crime is higher than it truly is in your community.

3. Will the agency create regular enough content to necessitate establishing a separate presence?

Ultimately, social media platforms require daily attention and regular posting of content. These are places for interaction, and the agency needs the resources and the content necessary to establish a useful presence. Any social media site without regular content should be deleted or run the risk of government seeming as idle as the social media page itself.  

There are other factors you may consider, but overall, you must manage your social media presence as you do any other communication from the organization, and that starts by centralizing the activity and strategically establishing your social media presence to accomplish clearly articulated goals without compromising the overall message.

Regarding management of personal social media accounts to maintain public trust, it gets a bit more complicated. You and your employees have a First Amendment right to freedom of speech, which is not bound by any particular medium. So, your employees have the same rights to speak on social media as they do in any other public space. You may not like what they say, what they wear, or how they present themselves, but your ability to prevent them from doing so is limited. Here are two tips to help guide your actions regarding managing personal social media use.

1. Speak with your city/county attorney to understand what type of language and action can be prohibited and make certain to articulate those in your personnel policies.

They should use discipline regardless of the platform they use. For example, they may not represent themselves as government employees or speak on behalf of the government without authorization. They may not threaten others based on their position with the local government. They may not disclose any personal or confidential information obtained through their employment with the local government, etc.

2. Develop social media “guidelines.”

By establishing clear guidelines you give yourself and your employees a clear sense of the ethical responsibilities that come with being a public servant for a local government.

Social media is a valuable medium that allows us to connect and engage with people, businesses, and our government. Trying to control the use of social media is a futile effort, but understanding the image we portray in the ways we communicate through social media as with any other public space is vital to your efforts in establishing and maintaining public trust.


ICMA Blog


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