Whether municipal officials are starting a new social media page, or are looking to enhance an existing social media strategy, using Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any other platform can be a valuable tool to promote resident engagement and create transparency. Social media platforms offer cities and towns efficient and cost-effective ways to engage and inform residents, visitors and businesses about the topics important to the local government.
Social media offers municipalities plenty of opportunities to communicate strategically. They can use these platforms as part of their emergency action planning for crises. They can offer hybrid city council meetings or other public meetings — the meeting takes place in person, but it also streams on a social media platform, and members of the public body can accept public comment from those streaming the meeting. Social media can also be used to distribute recorded meetings, which can help promote transparency.
The technology also allows for two-way, real-time communication, which can be key in building trust. For example, residents can use it to communicate issues or concerns, such as faulty roads or sidewalks that need attention.
While there are certainly benefits in having a social media page, there are also potential pitfalls, since social media posts can create liability. Every employee is an agent acting on behalf of the municipality, therefore any social media statement that a municipal employee makes on its behalf can result in liability.
To manage this concern, municipalities should have a policy that outlines who can post on behalf of the municipality and the types of content that can be posted in an official capacity. Designating specific individuals to post information allows the municipality to have more control over the content. It is important that municipal leaders understand the potential liability risks associated with social media and proactively manage the risks by having a sound policy in place.
Social media use by public entities is considered public record, and can be subject to public records laws. The SC Freedom of Information Act requires the retention of social media content. Understanding the potential for FOIA requests and the importance of having an archiving solution is an important part of local governments' use of social media and developing an appropriate strategy.
Keeping this in mind while understanding other risks as well, will assist in planning for or enhancing the social media policy for the municipality.
For more information, see the Public Official's Guide to Compliance with the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.