Adopting social media communications requires legal diligence

Blaring sirens that alert the public to emergencies remain foundational in many communities for reaching the people about need-to-know news. Social media serves as an adjunct method for quick dissemination of information to large populations. But many cities appreciate that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and even texting, provide options for communication beyond just emergency situations.

Many use these tools to engage citizens in discussion about ongoing and developing issues of public interest. But such access also has implications in the context of compliance with governance laws that city’s cannot ignore.

Essential elements of a social media plan

Such laws as the Texas Open Meetings Act and Texas Public Information Act have relevance in this regard. To be sure that any official activity through online portals stays within the confines of law, formal policies addressing certain essentials are needed. These include:

  • Identifying acceptable use: Any accounts established are government property and employees need clear information on how they can and cannot be used, what the consequences can be for misuse and who to turn to when questions arise.
  • Oversight responsibility: Clarity on who administers allowable accounts, how content is managed and who has access prevents a “Who’s on first? What’s on second?” scenario of confusion. Whoever is in charge needs to be trained on city policy and compliance with relevant local, state and federal laws.
  • Content controls: Freedom of speech is not absolute. A city on social media not only has a right to restrict language from citizens that might violate the law, but an obligation. Some experts also recommend including a disclaimer that makes clear that citizen comments don’t reflect official city opinion.
  • Legal due diligence: Besides the open meeting and public information acts mentioned earlier, data on social media is subject to record retention laws and possibly e-discovery laws. Language regarding any applicable laws, including warnings against improper use of copyrighted or trademarked information deserve inclusion in a solid policy.
  • Security: Headlines confirm that big players in cyberspace (Facebook, IRS, Social Security Administration) are hacker targets. Cities can’t assume they’re too small to fall victim. Data and information security protocols are necessary, regardless.

These touch on just a few key elements that experts agree should be part of a city’s social media policy. There could be others. To get your questions answered, speak with an attorney skilled in municipal law.