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Posted on July 14, 2022 at 11:42 AM by Cella Hyde
In the modern age, one of the most powerful tools we have to communicate about and within our communities is social media. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and others have made the transfer of information, ideas, and the process of coming together to achieve common goals instantaneous. On a personal and public level, we have never been more connected.
Pew Research Center reported this year that an estimated one-in-five adults in the United States used Twitter, and last year their numbers reflected that seven-in-ten used Facebook. From the standpoint of local government, that’s a huge number of citizens that are directly impacted by your office – and those numbers are just from two of the many social media channels available to the public.
From behind a keyboard or smartphone, offices can communicate closures, retirements, policy changes, and even send out pictures of office pets (that’s WACO Deputy Director Tim Grisham’s pup, Dolly, on the left!). So, with the ease of this type of communication at the tips of our fingers, why does it seem like many local government offices don’t utilize these platforms and channels?
Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington (MRSC) describes the problem succinctly in the first sentence on their Social Media Policies page: “Social media is a complex topic from both a legal and policy standpoint.”
While social media provides a strong connection with our communities, if navigating its social mores can seem like an insurmountable task for citizens, that metaphorical minefield is amplified hundreds of times over for government officials who also have legal obligations to consider.
Some best practices are fairly obvious – don’t use your office email for a personal social media account, if you align yourself with your office on your private account consider adding a disclaimer that thoughts are your own, etc. Other guidelines, like who has authority to manage the accounts and how you archive social media activity, can take a bit more consideration.
Because activity that is conducted on an agency or office social media account is subject to the Public Records Act and Secretary of State Records Management Guidelines and Retention Schedules, comprehensive policy guides should be put into place to ensure compliance. While creation of these guides may seem daunting, there are many resources available to help your office navigate the task.
MRSC has compiled a list of social media management policies from throughout the state, divided by county size, to help you see comparable policies you can take guidance from. The National Association of Counties (NACo) has put together a resource page on how to capture your website and social media for FOIA & eDiscovery compliance. And, of course, the WACO Education Hub has a comprehensive, multi-video Open Government Training presented by the Washington State Attorney General's Office that’s available 24/7.
But a big question remains: With the time and effort it takes to create a social media management policy and branding guidelines, and the many competing tasks on our plates – is it actually worth it? Mike Allende, Social Media Manager for Washington State Department of Transit (WSDOT), definitely thinks so.
“It’s not only worth it, it’s necessary these days.” Mike explained to WACO staff, "This doesn’t mean you have to be on every platform, create daily TikToks and produce dazzling graphics all the time. But if you don’t have some kind of presence on social media these days, you are losing an opportunity to connect with the public in a way that isn’t possible any other way.
It’s also vital that we meet the public where they are, and where they are increasingly is on social media. It does take time and effort, for sure, but it’s incredibly important in order to stay connected to the people we serve.”
Not only does social media meet the public where they are, but it can be a great way to let your office’s personality shine. Mike says your social media doesn’t have to be bland just because you’re a government agency or office.
“It may not be humor, it may not be snark, it may not be references to pop culture. That’s OK, but you shouldn’t be afraid to interact with the public in a way that lets them know you’re a real person. It goes a long way to building trust and goodwill if they know you’re not just spewing talking points. “
Building that trust and interaction with the community is crucial for the success of local government offices. Not only does it help educate your community on how you serve them, but it humanizes your office and staff – which can greatly increase staff retention and interest in office employment opportunities.
“The public already has a conception that we are a faceless agency full of drones who have no concept of ‘the real world.’ If you simply put out content with no voice or personality, you’re perpetuating that myth.
[One of the biggest benefits of social media is that] it allows us to humanize our agency in a way that we can’t do via a website or press releases. It allows us to have a voice, to respond to the public in real time, to be a part of the community. It helps change the narrative that government is disconnected from the real world and has no concept of what it’s like for every day people.
The more you get to know somebody, the more you trust them, the more you turn to them and trust their information. It’s the same way with agencies. People are far more likely to trust you or at least turn to you if they know you drive the same streets, eat at the same restaurants, deal with the same issues, as they do.”
In the end, maintaining a social media presence does add more work to the plate of a local government office, but it also provides an invaluable connection to the people those offices serve, making the effort worthwhile. Not to mention, managing social media can be a blast! Before we let him go, we asked Mike what his favorite part of the job is.
“This is a challenging question because it is HARD to do social media for a government agency. Really hard. It is nice to have the trust and freedom to be creative that we get from our leadership – we wouldn’t be able to do what we do otherwise. But my favorite part, I think, is being able to tell the great stories that our agency has to tell.
Whether it’s showing wildlife using our wildlife bridge, our crews helping rescue a driver lost on a snowy highway, helping track down a little boy's missing stuffed dinosaur or our Incident Response Team getting a scared stranded driver back going, we have so many great workers doing great work and being able to let the public know about it – and having them respond with thank yous to our workers that they might not otherwise be able to do – is gratifying.”
So take the plunge and set up your office’s accounts – and, of course, don’t forget to follow WACO on Twitter and Facebook!