When it comes to a municipality being active on social media, there are lots of benefits. There also are several things to be aware of before launching into the world of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more.
Facebook and Twitter in particular are a highly effective means to educate and inform your residents on everything from upcoming meetings, to leaf pick-up, to snow emergencies.
But municipalities, more than most other entities, also face challenges when it comes to communicating through social media. Many of the laws on the books today haven’t fully caught up with the digital age.
1. Public records and archiving conversations.
At its most basic, a city or village’s Facebook page is a public record. Few states have issued specific guidance on the matter, but informal opinions from the Wisconsin Attorney General and others suggest that municipalities are indeed generally obligated to retrieve and find previous posts and conversations should someone file a request. The question that remains is how.
In the City of Eau Claire, city attorney Stephen Nick addressed the City Council in April with recommendations. In a story that ran in the Eau Claire Leader Telegram, Nick suggested that council members take periodic screen captures of their own Facebook pages – so there is a copy of how the page looked in the event an open records request is filed on a city issue. And while tracking each comment, “like,” or post could be tough, Nick advised council members to at a minimum have electronic copies of the comments they post themselves.
Facebook does keep an archive of all activity for any given user, and this data can be downloaded to an external location, but the challenge of combing through these digital records for specific dates and content remains. Additionally, in the future, Facebook may not allow access to archived activity to the same extent it does currently. Our suggestion is to make use of the ability to download the archive and to do so with regularity.
There are also vendors who offer this type of archiving for a fee. The League has not reviewed these sites but there are some municipalities who do use them. They include http://www.govlive.com/vault and http://archivesocial.com/.
2. Open meeting laws.
Municipalities using social media must be careful not to violate Wisconsin’s open meeting law, which requires that all “meetings” of governmental bodies be publicized and open to the public. A meeting occurs whenever sufficient numbers communicate about or conduct public business, whether it be discussing a matter, taking action, or even simply gathering information on a matter over which the body has responsibility.
As League Legal Counsel Claire Silverman warns, “Sometimes a sufficient number can be less than a quorum of the body. For example, a meeting by a ‘negative quorum’ – that number of members who can defeat a measure – or a ‘walking quorum’ – where a quorum is reached by serial meetings or communications – can violate the open meeting law. If a sufficient number of members communicate regarding government business via social media, the governmental body may violate the open meeting law.”
3. Social media policies.
Any entity with a social media presence should have a clearly articulated policy stating who is authorized to post to those accounts.
In addition, that social media policy should outline employee use and personal comments. For example, personal blogs should have clear disclaimers that the views expressed by the author in the blog is the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the city or village. The writer should make clear that he or she is speaking for him or herself and not on behalf of the City or department.
Good examples of municipal social media policies can be found in the social media section under Resources at www.lwm-info.org.
As a communication tool, social media sites have revolutionized how we can communicate with citizens. The opportunities for sharing information and educating the residents of our cities and villages have never been greater. But with that comes the responsibility that municipalities must shoulder as they grapple with issues of transparency, public records laws, and employee rights.
Kate Venne is the Director of Public Relations at Capstone National Partners. If you’re interested in media training, contact Kate to find out more.
The views in this blog post represent the viewpoints of individual team members, not Capstone National Partners as a whole.