The 8 elements of a successful social media policy

The best practice for creating policies is including eight standard elements

Government agencies under pressure to codify usage rules for social media by their employees should consider eight standard elements and best practices when drafting those policies, according to a new study by the University of Albany.

While Facebook and Twitter offer professional and personal benefits to users, government agencies are exploring new territory in trying to take advantage of the new tools while also maintaining existing controls on mission integrity, security, privacy, nondiscrimination and other goals, according to the university’s Center for Technology in Government study.

The study reviewed 26 such policies, and identified eight standard elements to use when drafting rules for social media use:

  1. Employee access — Agencies should consider restricting worktime access to social media to certain employees or limit access to specific social media Web sites, as well as create procedures for employees to request authorized access.
  2. Account management — Agencies should create policies for creating, maintaining and destroying social media accounts.
  3. Acceptable use — Agencies should to deal with “acceptable use” with policies about how and when to use social media.
  4. Employee conduct — The majority of agencies already deal with this with existing ethics policies, but can benefit by being more explicit about unacceptable uses,
  5. Content management — Those policies can cover a broad spectrum that ranges from minimal control of social media to more detailed controls.
  6. Security — Social media tools can create new types of security risks that agencies must anticipate and plan for.
  7. Legal issues — Agencies should ask employees to publish disclaimers that state they are expressing their own opinions and not those of the agency.
  8. Citizen conduct — Policies are needed for reviewing comments on agency Web sites, including content and language.

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“Developing a social media policy can be an important first step for those government agencies considering using social media and can ultimately serve as a key enabler for responsibly and effectively leveraging social media tools. Yet, many governments are struggling with what such a policy should encompass and convey,” the report said.

Relatively few government agencies have established formal policies to date, the report continued.

Government employees now use social media for their agency’s official interests, for their professional interests and for their own personal interests. However, many social media activities blur the lines between those categories, such as an employee interacting with professional peers on a social media site such as GovLoop, the study added.

"Our study revealed that governments are still trying to figure out how to put boundaries around an employee’s personal, professional, and official agency uses,” the study said. “Each use has different security, legal, and managerial implications and government agencies are tasked with striking a balance between using social media for official agency interests only and allowing all employees access for personal and professional interests.”

Agencies often restrict use of worktime hours to access social media for personal use, but a more complicated question is how to limit worktime access to social media that is being accessed for the purpose of advancing agency or professional interests, the study said.

“The question of acceptable employee use for professional and official agency reasons remains complicated. Only three of the 26 policies have begun to address this issue,” the study said.

Similarly, standards are evolving to address employee conduct on social media. The majority of the policies reference existing policies, such as policies on ethics, non-discrimination and prohibitions on illegal activity.

The authors suggest that clearer lines may need to be drawn so that Internet users know what will get them fired.

“None of the policies reviewed directly address the consequences of inappropriate conduct on personal social media sites. However, outlining which aspects are simply recommendations for personal behavior and which ones are potential grounds for dismissal might be useful for employees and their managers trying to navigate and define the parameters of the personal/professional divide,” the study said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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