State Officials Cautiously Engage Social Media

Social media is becoming an increasingly popular channel of communication, and state leaders are joining the conversation.  They perceive a variety of advantages, as well as disadvantages, with using new media and are developing best practices to deploy these new technologies responsibly.

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Social media is becoming an established channel of communication.

Social media is becoming ubiquitous. For example, the popular social networking utility Facebook is now used by more than a half billion people—a milestone it reached in the summer of 2010.1 The popularity of social media is creating a new communications environment that can both empower and imperil state officials as they strive to better serve the public interest.
The National Association of State Chief Information Officers suggests states look to the following examples of use when confronting this new reality:
  • Private sector investment and use of social media,
  • Political campaign use of social media,
  • Federal and local government engagement in social media, and
  • Heightened expectations of citizens from all demographics to communicate online.2
Both private and nonprofit sectors can provide concrete examples of how to deliver better  customer service and collaborate on best practices. The health insurance provider Cigna has a communications and customer service staff who monitors Twitter for tweets about the  company. If a customer tweets about a negative experience, the company will quickly identify this complaint and respond to it on Twitter.3 This diligence not only improves relationships with the affected customer, but it also gives the company a chance to form an appropriate response that can calm the ripple effect of critical comments in a social media environment. In the  nonprofit sector, technology professionals have shared best practices and other training resources via the website WeAreMedia.4 The site functions as a wiki—a website where  individuals can log in and collaboratively edit the content of the web pages. The net effect is that good ideas are instantly and easily distributed among an interested community.
State Leaders Join the Conversation
The business and nonprofit sectors are engaged because social media represents a substantial audience. In Washington, almost 58 percent of the population is on Facebook, making the state a leader in social media use.5 State leaders, many of whom come to state government with social networks from political campaigns, are continuing to use these tools to remain engaged with an increasingly connected public. DCI Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm, recently conducted a review of state officials on social media and found the following:
Facebook use:
  •  All 50 governors are on Facebook.
  •  More than one-third of state legislators across the country are on Facebook.
  •  Every state has at least one legislator using the social networking site.
Twitter use:
  •  Forty-eight governors use Twitter.
  •  More than 10 percent of state legislators use the service.
  •  More than 80 state legislative caucuses have a Twitter presence.6
For many state officials, social media is a new frontier with both opportunities and risks.  Nonetheless, it is a frontier they are exploring. The University at Albany’s Center for  Technology and Government has produced two publications that provide a thoughtful framework for government officials considering why and how they might best use social media. The reports explore useful insights such as the perceived advantages and risks of using social media, as well as policies and guidelines for best practices. In the first of the University of Albany reports, researchers surveyed a group of government professionals from the state of New York to identify what participants perceived to be the benefits and risks of using social media in government.7 Highlights from the government professionals’ feedback are provided below.
The project participants believed social media use in government had the following advantages:
  • Greater competitiveness in employee recruiting—Having a presence in social media would allow states to build awareness with the next generation, which would in turn help with  employee recruitment.
  • Enhanced access for the disabled—Disseminating services through social media would make access to certain government services more convenient.
  • Creation of virtual communities—Social media services would empower interested members of the public to organize around specific issues. Officials believed such communities could provide a valuable collaborative resource, which could reduce the burden of common inquiries on limited government staff.
  • Instantaneous information sharing—Government professionals perceived the immediacy of social media to be one of these emerging platforms’ key attributes. State officials have the ability to distribute information quickly during emergencies, without necessarily syncing their communications with the traditional news cycle.
  • Enhanced collaboration—The group identified the power of internal wikis to allow anyone regardless of location or time to collaborate.
  • Enhanced public safety—Participants emphasized that social media could allow for the rapid and viral spread of information, often via status updates. This could help quickly get the word out on important safety information. Social media also enables officials to search for and target information to an at-risk audience.
  • Information dissemination and exchange—Participants considered social media’s ability to reach a wider audience, including younger generations who are often inexperienced with regard to government services, to be an important benefit. Furthermore, social media lets the public provide feedback to published information and can enhance internal agency communication.
  • “Coolness” factor—Participants believed social media demonstrated a government’s flexibility to changing media and put a human face on bureaucracies.
  • Improved training capabilities—Participants believed social media’s ability to disseminate and exchange information allowed for a more organized exchange of educational materials.
  • Documentation—Social media provides a common and consistent platform for storing information. Because answers could appear in a common online space, this would also assist with making answers to public inquiries more consistent.
  • Cost saving—Participants noted social media enables virtual collaboration, which could reduce travel costs. Communities also can be harnessed to provide answers to the public, which reduces strain on, and expenses for, government workers.
The project participants believed social media use in government had the following disadvantages:
  • Resources—Officials worried about the technical challenges of social media, such as use of bandwidth and the potential for malware to penetrate existing systems. Social media could open up officials to an unmanageable number of inquiries from the public. Language barriers also could be an issue. Information technology personnel would also need to train and monitor personnel for appropriate and legal use of the tools.
  • Legal and regulatory ramifications—Participants identified four areas of concern:  appropriate use of tools; accuracy of posted content; compliance with state and federal laws, such as the Freedom of Information Act; and potential consequences of legal  agreements with social media providers that might have terms unacceptable to the state.
  • Governance—The group expressed concern about how to control who is allowed to post and what content can be posted or associated with an official page. Certain advertisements might also cause confusion.
  • Making a business case—As conducting a cost-benefit analysis would be difficult for social media initiatives because the landscape is dynamic, officials were concerned with how to best allocate the investment of precious time.
  • Security—The group was concerned that malware could penetrate the agency and/or affect the public, and that sensitive information could be exposed or leaked.
  • Accessibility—Participants were concerned that citizens who did not have high-speed access might be further left behind.
  • Perception—Officials fear social media could be seen as a recreational activity that is inappropriate for government officials.
  • Information overload—They also expressed concern that the sheer volume of information transmitted across social media could overwhelm and disorient citizens.
Following these initial findings, the Center developed a report to investigate how governments were developing policies and guidelines to deal with these challenges posed by the new social media.8 They concluded that policies should include:
  • Employee access—Governments that have social media policies often control who can access social media and/or what social media sites can be accessed.
  • Account management—Policies typically cover the lifespan of accounts—the creation, maintenance and destruction of these accounts—and which officials oversee this process.
  • Acceptable use—Such guidelines delineate how employees may use social media on behalf of the agency, with specifics about personal use and the consequences of violating policies.
  • Employee conduct—While this topic is often covered by other state regulations, social  media policies should suggest employees conduct themselves with transparency and in a professional manner.
  • Content—Some governments specify who should manage social media content and how many, if any, individuals oversee this process.
  • Security—This important feature of social media policies focuses on the technical side, such as requiring complex passwords, and also not posting sensitive information.
  • Legal issues—Many of the legal issues revolve around the maintenance of public records as well as disclaimers to distinguish personal comments from official agency positions.
  • Citizen conduct—Several policies delineate the types of comments acceptable in social media.
These reports by The Center for Technology and Government represent some of the leading insights into how government officials can participate in social media responsibly. While the use of social media carries pitfalls—some with legal ramifications—participation allows state  agencies to weigh in with authority on conversations that may happen even if state officials refrain from using these new platforms. It also allows them to interactively communicate with
the public—a level of engagement the public increasingly expects.

1 Zuckerberg, M. (2010, July 21). “500 Million Strong -- The Facebook Blog.” 
2 National Association of State Chief Information Officers. “Friends, Followers, and Feeds: A National Survey of Social Media Use in State Government.” September 2010. 
3 Barry, E. “How Insurers Use Social Media.” American Medical News, 54 (2) , 21. American Medical Association. January 31, 2011. 
4 Kanter, B. “4 Ways Social Media is Changing the Non-Profit World.” May 22, 2009. 
5 DCI Group. “Digital America.” 
6 Ibid.
7 The Research Foundation of State University of New York. “Exploratory Social Media Project Phase I: Identifying Benefits and Concerns Surrounding Use of Social Media in Government.” December 15, 2009. 
8 Hrdinova, J., Helbig, N., & Stollar Peters, C. “Designing Social Media Policy for Government: Eight Essential Elements.” May 12, 2010. 
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