This post is part of a two-part blog series on maintaining public trust in a social media environment. Read part one here.
If you are like me, you remember when cell phones first came out and you couldn’t believe that people actually needed such a device. “If someone wants to talk to me, they can wait until I am at home or in my office!” Now I break out into a cold sweat if I don’t have my phone with me. Who knows how many emails, phone messages or breaking news stories I may be missing out on?! Of course, this was all before “google” was a verb and before I thought my 56.6k dial-up modem was blazing fast (just google 56.6k dial-up sounds if you want to reminisce on those “good old days”). Today, there is even greater expectation to connect, and an old flip-phone won’t cut it.
Hopefully, your local government is engaging citizens in a variety of media, including social media, which allows conversation to develop with the public and offers a voice to residents on policy matters before the elected body. (For guidelines on establishing a social media policy for your local government, see this post.) Here I want to discuss how your personal social media presence affects your ability to develop public trust.
As public servants, there is little separation between our public and private lives. Our job is to serve the community, and the members of our community want to know that their tax dollars are being managed by professionals who hold high ethical standards on and off the job. Like it or not, fair or unfair, how we present ourselves at all times is imperative to building public trust.
While one solution to minimizing public scrutiny is to abstain from social media; however, this approach prohibits the positive impacts of social media on building public trust. That is, you have the ability to be a champion for your community and illustrate the quality of people serving in your local government. My recommendation is to be responsibly active in social media so that the public gets to know you outside of the job in a way that highlights the qualities that make you well suited for the position, and to serve your community.
Remember, social media is public, and your social media profiles should reflect the code of ethics you agreed to uphold as a member of ICMA. Here are some simple steps to guide what you post online as you strive to maintain public trust and confidence in your local government.
1. Think about what you post as if you are at a council meeting.
Remember, social media platforms are public forums. As such, you should avoid any discussion of your personal political views, and you should never undermine the elected body you serve. You are ethically obligated to support the position of the elected body in their majority and uphold the policies they adopt.
2. Treat your social media like it is the front page of the local newspaper.
If you would be concerned about the content being on the front page of the newspaper, then it doesn’t belong on your social media feed. This includes your responses to others’ social media posts and the content you choose to “like.” The public expects government employees to be engaged in the community, to support local activities and events, and to be responsible on and off the job. Be sure you measure up to those expectations in your social media engagement.
3. Promote local government policies, activities, and events.
Social media is an effective marketing tool because of the ability to spread the word beyond your immediate audience. So, the surest way to spread the word about government activities, policies, programs, and services is to encourage government employees to spread the word through their personal social media accounts. As you share your government’s posts and generate your own content in support of government activities, you increase the reach of your government communication efforts.
4. Control your message and avoid the trolls.
Trolls are those who want to get a reaction out of you. They tend to attack you or your views or post provocative content in hopes of sparking a reaction. Be intentional about what you post and what you respond to. Don’t fall into the trap of engaging in a public debate over an issue that runs the risk of you seeming to be an agent against the “people” of the community. Always respond positively and informatively without creating a combative tone or nature online.
Ultimately, the First Amendment affords you personal liberties to speak freely. However, your ethical obligations to the profession require you to consider how your words affect your ability to foster public trust and be a nonpartisan agent for the community you chose to serve.