The Two Faces of Social Media: When We Speak, Is It Personal Opinion or Official Position? and How Could Anyone Tell?

By Perego, Martha | Public Management, June 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Two Faces of Social Media: When We Speak, Is It Personal Opinion or Official Position? and How Could Anyone Tell?


Perego, Martha, Public Management


The infiltration of social media into our personal lives and workplaces is creating some interesting ethical issues for local government organizations. Organizations have always had an overriding interest in and an expectation of controlling who speaks and what's said on behalf of the organization. Social media networks now make for quick communication to an exponentially large audience but often without that distinct line between personal opinion and official position. It's highly likely that you will encounter one of these situations.

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Q. The city manager learned that a library employee started a Facebook page promoting the idea of a new library for the city. This news surfaced after a councilmember was asked to be a "fan" of the page. The manager checked the site and discovered that the employee was indeed listed as the administrator of the page. It was not clear from the information posted whether the employee had direction or approval of the library board to set up the site.

The manager was uncomfortable with a city entity or employee promoting the development of a new facility without engagement with the city council, and he sought advice about how to proceed. Should he order the employee to take down the site?

A. Regardless of whether it is via a blog, Facebook, or the now seemingly archaic letter to the editor, all employees have a First Amendment right to comment, after hours and on their own equipment, about city matters. Even though this might create discomfort at the leadership level, the activity cannot be banned outright.

Probably a wise approach would be to talk with the employee about the importance of staff working in concert with the leadership on projects rather than running a solo effort, and that is what the manager in this case did. If the library staff person is really interested in helping the cause, she might be willing to take the site down and rethink her strategy.

Upon reflection and after a conversation with the manager, the employee decided it was best to turn the task of administering the site over to a member of the local "friends of the library," especially since the effort would have mandated that she stay on top of the site during work hours. She continues to be a proponent of a new library but on her own time.

Would the manager take a different tack if the employee in question was the library director? Certainly. Management personnel represent the organization, and when they speak, their comments should reflect the official position of the agency. It would be inappropriate for the library director to promote a concept that had not been vetted with the city manager and governing body.

Social media sites, when branded with city logos or authored by staff, are an extension of the local government's information network. For that reason, the organization has a vested interest in making sure that the information presented represents its official position.

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The Two Faces of Social Media: When We Speak, Is It Personal Opinion or Official Position? and How Could Anyone Tell?
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