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A Social Media Roadmap for Elected City Officials

By Danielle Cabot and Don Reeder

For elected city officials, social media can be an effective tool to help you connect with residents, model the rewarding work of public service, and build community. It can also damage your reputation and that of the city by magnifying bad behavior and broadcasting careless comments.

And while your official city accounts are often run by a professional staff person following policy and best practices, the roadmap to effective use of social media for an elected official is usually far less defined.

The following steps can help you to build your effectiveness as an elected official, avoid misrepresenting your city, and minimize the possibility of negative press and controversy related to your activity online.

Keep it separate

Whether you are using Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or another platform, keep your professional accounts dedicated and separate from any existing personal accounts. This helps you keep the general public and city business conversations separate from where your family and friends chat about vacation photos.

You’ll want to check into each platform to determine their rules for having more than one account. On Facebook, for example, you’ll want to set up what Facebook calls a “page” (as opposed to a personal “account”) for your activity as an elected official. This is important because Facebook doesn’t allow individuals to have more than one personal account.

Put it in writing

Create your own personal social media plan by writing down your role in the city, your audience, your goals, and your communication strengths. Then identify what types of content make sense for you and your followers. Possible goals might be to show that you:

  • Are engaged in the community.
  • Are committed to protecting and promoting the image of the city.
  • Are a resource for existing and potential residents and businesses.
  • Lift up and collaborate with others.
  • Welcome the involvement of residents and business owners.

Don’t forget multimedia

Photos and video can be more effective than a wordy post, particularly if you’re better at speaking than writing. For any type of content, remember that a trusted “editor” is always a good idea to help spot errors and serve as a sounding board.

Avoid PR pitfalls

Sometimes elected officials find themselves the subject of negative attention due to content they have posted, shared, or liked. Examples of controversial posts include:

  • Racist or sexist content.
  • Political or partisan content trashing an opponent.
  • Language disparaging immigrants.
  • References to violence.
  • Jokes about serious or tragic events.
  • Threats to city staff.
  • Comments that create questions about Open Meeting Law violations.

Sometimes these posts are packaged as humor meant to entertain people who share political or cultural views. While you don’t need to check your freedom of expression rights at the door, it’s important to exercise a degree of restraint that might not be required of others.

A meme isn’t going to help you pave the streets, resolve a land use discussion, or encourage residents to participate in local government. A poorly considered post could, however, embolden incivility, set you up for contentious council meetings, and even cause legal trouble.

Remember, perception is reality. Make sure your communication is clear and, before posting, consider whether it could be misinterpreted by or be offensive to anyone. Remember also that someone on your personal account is unlikely to distinguish that content from your role as a city official, and they may even hold the city accountable for your thoughts.

Tips for success

So, what are the building blocks of quality content that can advance your work as a community leader, protect the city’s reputation, and engage your residents? Here are a few tips:

  • Provide value and be authentic. Would you want to read your own post?
  • Don’t post anything that you wouldn’t say in person.
  • Keep disagreements with colleagues civil, and choose an offline forum to address them.
  • Consider inviting bullies and complainers to meet for coffee and talk about their concerns in person.
  • Heated? Take a step back and make sure you have the information and perspective you need before posting.

By winning an election, you have already demonstrated that you can earn the trust and respect of the citizens you represent. Consider your social media presence an extension of that work and build an online presence that will support and advance your goals.

Danielle Cabot is communications coordinator with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dcabot@lmc.org or (651) 281-1233. Don Reeder is public affairs manager with the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: dreeder@lmc.org or (651) 251-4031.