Social media plays a critical role in connecting everyday citizens with the inner workings of the federal government, making communication more open and transparent.
In fact, according to a report by J.D. Power, 14% of Americans use social media to find information about a federal agency, while 30% use social either to ask the government a direct question or to resolve an offline issue.
Only recently, however, have government agencies started incorporating social media into their overall communications strategies. The practice is still fairly new and, naturally, comes with some pretty tough regulatory challenges. Given these hurdles, social teams working in the government sector take an average 10.3 hours to respond to messages from citizens while responding to only 9.2% of messages in a prompt manner at all, according to The 2015 Sprout Social Index.
Still, while response rates and times may be lagging, that hasn’t stopped federal agencies from establishing a solid presence online. From the Privacy Act of 1974 to NASA’s recent journey to Mars, here’s a comprehensive look at what you need to know about the US government’s ever-evolving role in the free and open exchange of information.
The Federal Government & Social Media: The Beginning
In the Transparency and Open Government Memorandum of 2009—and the resulting Office of Management and Budget’s Open Government Directive—President Barack Obama encouraged federal agencies to adopt new technologies to engage the public. This was done to put information about federal operations and decisions online as well as to solicit public feedback.
In 2012, the White House released the Digital Government Strategy, which is built upon four overarching principles:
- Information centric: This approach moves the government from managing “documents” to managing discrete pieces of data and content that can be shared, secured and presented in a way that’s most serviceable to the end user.
- Shared platform: This approach helps the government work together within and across agencies, streamline development, apply standards and ensure consistency in how information is created and delivered.
- Customer centric: This approach influences how data is created, managed and presented through websites, mobile apps and more. It also enables people to shape, share and consume information wherever and however they’d like.
- Security and privacy: This serves to ensure the safe and secure delivery and use of digital services to protect information and privacy.
More recently, the Chief Information Officers Council released the Privacy Best Practices for Social Media, which addresses ways the federal government can use social media for information sharing, situational awareness and support of agency operations.
The Federal Government & Social Listening: Understanding Privacy Laws & How to Protect Yourself
The federal government relies on social media primarily to monitor what people are saying about specific programs and events, and then use that information to improve strategies and services. Of course, the words “federal government” and “listening” may cause some people alarm, so it’s important to know the law.
The Privacy Act of 1974
The Privacy Act includes provisions that protect personally identifiable information (PII) of citizens. As a result, agencies need to take precautions not to report information that can be used to uniquely identify, contact or locate an individual. A common form of this is usernames, which is why creating influencer lists isn’t recommended. A username is a unique identifier and can be linked to a specific individual. So maintaining a list of usernames would be considered a violation of privacy.
In the supporting document, the Guidance for Agency Use of Third-Party Websites and Applications, it’s stated that if the collection of PII is necessary, then the agency should collect only the minimum required to accomplish a purpose.
It’s recommended that social media managers working in government meet with legal counsel and privacy officers when developing social listening and analysis strategies to ensure that appropriate policies are followed and any necessary protections have been taken.
The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998
While most social networks have an age requirement—13 years—that doesn’t mean younger individuals aren’t participating. Signing up for a social network is a fairly unregulated process: All it takes is selecting a different age from the drop-down box or entering in a different year of birth.
The Federal Records Act of 1950
The Federal Records Act requires the preservation of any official “record,” which includes all books, papers, maps, photographs, machine-readable materials and other documentary materials made or received by an agency of the government. In 2014, the act was amended to include electronic documents.
As individuals create, edit, comment on and share content on social media, that results in the creation of federal records. While it’s the responsibility of the agency to determine which records they create or receive, it’s best to include all ingoing and outgoing social media, including posts, comments, photos and reviews on third-party platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Note: A complete record must have content, context and structure along with associated metadata, such as author and date of creation.
Social Record Keeping
While most platforms do retain records, they’re not kept over long periods of time, and in some cases, communications can be modified or deleted by users. This significantly limits the amount of control agencies have over the process. Alternatives, such as taking screenshots or using personal backup tools, are difficult to maintain and pose challenges when it comes to locating records later.
To help with this effort, Sprout Social retains social records for the duration of your subscription so you don’t have to worry about archiving. If you plan to have an active social media presence, you can draft and publish messages as well as export your records as needed.
How to Determine What to Save
Here are a few questions that will help you determine record status of social media content:
- Does it contain evidence of an agency’s policies, business or mission?
- Is the information only available on the social media site?
- Does the agency use the tool to convey official information?
- Is there a business need for the information?
If you’ve answered yes to any of the above questions, then the content is likely federal record. You’ll also want to consult with a records officer about what data will be collected and why, how it’s used or shared, how it’s stored and secured and how long it’s kept.
The Federal Government & Accessibility: Extending Your Reach Across America
The goal of social listening isn’t to hear what a select few think about a particular policy. You’ll receive the most valuable feedback if you cast a wide net. Segmentation is an important part of your strategy, but your content should still be accessible to a diverse audience, especially those with special needs.
The Rehabilitation Act of 1973
According to the US Census Bureau, 19% of the US population has a disability. In 2012, a survey discovered that just over one-third of screen reader users—people who use software to identify and interpret what’s being displayed on a screen—found social media sites to be inaccessible.
Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 requires government agencies to ensure all online content is accessible to everyone, including citizens with disabilities (motor, auditory, cognitive, neurological and visual).
This means that you might have to get creative with your copy, especially when characters are limited, as is the case on Twitter.
“If video or audio is used, it should be captioned,” said Debra Ruh, CEO and Founder of Ruh Global Communications. “Any graphics that are used, like a picture, should be explained in a Tweet or Facebook post. Basically, anything presented in a graphical, pictorial or multimedia way needs a text alternative.”
Also, avoid using acronyms and excessive hashtags. When hashtags are used, place them toward the end of or after sentences for clearer reading. For your website, ask your team to conduct accessibility testing when making changes or before launching new pages.
If the platform you’re using isn’t accessible to those with disabilities, then the content must be available elsewhere. This also makes it impossible to only share content online—non-digital copies must be available.
The Federal Government & Engagement: What You Need to Know Before Joining the Conversation
Before you get started with social media, all official uses must be approved by your agency’s management. You should also check that a TOS agreement has been signed with the social media tool you wish to use (most popular platforms are covered).
Getting Social Feedback
Under the Paperwork Reduction Act, agencies are required to obtain Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approval before seeking more types of information from the public. This can be a cumbersome process in a world that revolves around instant feedback.
The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs later clarified that the PRA doesn’t apply to many of the uses of social media. The following are exempt:
- Online suggestion boxes
- Email lists
- RSS feeds
- Crowdsourcing apps
- Discussion boards
- Social networks
Note: User profiles can be created as long as they request only an email address, username, password and a general location during the signup process. Profiles requiring more than that need to be submitted for approval. Also, web polls, satisfaction surveys, contests requiring structured responses and websites collecting demographic data about visitors are still subject to review
The Plain Writing Act of 2010 states that federal agencies are required to write all publications, forms and publicly distributed documents in a “clear, concise and well-organized” manner. In short, don’t intentionally mislead or confuse social media followers with legal or industry jargon.
It wasn’t long ago when the only way to reach a government official was by phone or mail. Now, all it takes to draw mass attention around an issue is a # or @ symbol. Social media creates an open environment where two-way conversations can take place, but it also opens the door to inappropriate comments. While the ability to hide or remove comments is an option for government agencies, it could also mean a First Amendment lawsuit.
The easiest solution is to create a clear comment moderation policy that establishes guidelines for both commenters and moderators. The first thing to include is the categories of speech that are subject to deletion. Common categories include:
Next, you’ll want to make sure that the people who are monitoring your social profile are able to distinguish between a prohibited category of speech and a protected viewpoint. For example, a negative comment about an agency or policy can’t be removed just because it’s unflattering. If the comment violates one of the bullet points above, then there are grounds for removal.
In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attracted some strong opinions in opposition of an STI vaccine—but none of the comments seems to have crossed the line, as defined by the bulleted list above. Even if they did, the CDC lacks a comment policy on its Facebook Page, so any deletion could potentially spark a First Amendment controversy.
You could nip any uncertainty in the bud by requiring comment approval from the start, but this option is only available on select social platforms. This is also why proper recording keeping is so important. As GovTech pointed out, “It’s impossible to make the case that a comment was in violation of your policy if no record of that comment exists.”
Government Agencies Excelling at Social
So who’s doing it right? With so many policies and regulations to consider, it’s easy to feel bogged down when creating your content strategy as a federal agency. You have to balance entertaining and informative content while managing an influx of public opinion and maintaining privacy and security. It’s tough but not impossible. Here are a few examples of federal government agencies with brilliant social media presences.
US Department of State
The State Department’s YouTube Channel operates like a well-oiled machine. It features daily videos, including remarks from Secretary of State John Kerry, press briefings, interviews with US diplomats and special collections on foreign policy issues. The channel has more than 33,200 subscribers and almost 9 million views. The videos are in compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act and include either a transcript or a detailed description of the events taking place. They’re also timely and provide transparency into the department.
Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
Going through security checkpoints is probably the most dreaded part of traveling, but on Instagram, the TSA has won over thousands of people. The agency engages more than 318,000 followers with pictures of confiscated items, employee spotlights—including the four-legged ones—and best practices for travelers. You’ll also notice the prominent link to the TSA’s privacy and comment policy in its bio.
NASA uses social media to inform the public about scientific discoveries and advancements in space exploration. One of the ways it achieves this is through visual storytelling.
With extraordinary planning, NASA launched its biggest social campaign around the Orion spacecraft’s flight test in December 2014. Its #JourneyToMars Tweet was Retweeted more than 20,000 times—100 times more than its typical social media posts. Half a million Tweets were inspired by Orion, and Orion trended at No. 1 in the US during the test.
— NASA (@NASA) December 2, 2014
NASA also took its storytelling offline and invited its social followers behind the scenes 22 times in 2014. More than 1,285 participants attended these NASA Socials and now act as brand ambassadors across social channels.
US Fish & Wildlife Service
The US Fish and Wildlife Service is another perfect example of a federal agency using visual storytelling to engage audiences.
Charged with protecting and enhancing America’s treasured fish, wildlife, plants and habitats, the agency relies heavily on photos and videos to capture the attention of viewers.
From breathtaking landscapes to incredible up-close meet-and-greets with some of nature’s most treasured inhabitants, the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s social media strategy is a hit with fans.
It’s also a hit with other federal agencies. The Department of the Interior regularly uses photos and videos created by the US Fish and Wildlife Service on its social media profiles.
Find Your Voice
Social media promotes community, connectedness and conversations—three things that federal agencies should want to achieve through their communications strategies. Take the necessary steps to ensure you’re going about things in the correct way. If that means waiting for approval on a Tweet, so be it. Go into social media equipped with a thoroughly thought-out plan, and break down any walls between your agency and your community.
Jennifer Beese: Jennifer Beese has worked as a community manager and social media strategist. When she’s not writing, you can find her studying anatomy and physiology—she literally has a skeleton in her closet—or under the stars with her telescope.