Social Media SOGs: Every department must create guidelines for how personnel share information online

Social Media SOGs
Every department must create guidelines for how personnel share information online
By Michelle DeCrane

When you hear the words “social media,” do you automatically think “cocktail party”? Does getting a “tweet” mean the robins have come home to roost? Does getting “tagged” mean the same thing as it did when you were 5 years old? Does “friending” someone mean you have a lunch date? If you “go viral,” do you need to take a sick day?

If your answer to any or all of these questions is “yes,” you may need some help. All of these terms are part of the lexicon of online social media, a networking revolution that includes Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and several other social networking sites, all of which demand your attention and input—both on duty and off.
But the landscape of social media is complex and ever-changing, so if you aren’t prepared for it or don’t know how to properly use it or guard yourself against it, you could find your department on the receiving end of a whole host of problems you’ve never even considered.

The Birth of the Social Media Policy
Having a social media policy in place is old news for most for-profit organizations. When MySpace first took off several years ago as the baby of the social media family, proactive companies developed a policy to protect themselves, as well as their employees, assets, brands—and reputations.

These days, one wrong click of the mouse and a company’s reputation that took years to develop could be completely destroyed. But municipalities—and most specifically, public safety agencies—have been slow to get wired. Whether they’re scared to embrace new technology, are hoping it will just go away or are stumped about how to deal with it, the fact remains that every department must take the necessary steps to ensure they know how to protect their members from misusing these tools.

Example: The Austin Fire Department
The Austin Fire Department (AFD) was one of the first departments in the City of Austin to establish a social media policy. Prior to creating this policy, both the AFD Code of Conduct and Computer Use policies had not been updated since the 1970s—and we all know that things have changed since then!

Rather than waiting for an issue to arise, we decided to be proactive and incorporate the following language into both policies: “Members of the Austin Fire Department shall not criticize or ridicule the Department, its policies, its officers or other members by speech, writing or other expression, when such speech, writing or expression:

1. is defamatory, obscene, slanderous or unlawful; and/or
2. tends to interfere with the maintenance of proper discipline; and/or
3. damages or impairs the reputation and/or efficiency of the Department or member."

This includes, but is not limited to, written, auditory and/or visual messages communicated via or on Department resources or via personal devices, such as cell phones, PDAs, etc., and/or social media (Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc.). Any written, auditory and/or visual messages communicated by a member that are relative to the Austin Fire Department in any capacity are the sole property of the Austin Fire Department. This includes, but is not limited to, any written, auditory, and/or visual messages communicated via or on Department resources or via or on personal devices and/or social media.”

Added Protection
As you can see, the AFD’s social media clause provides the department with added protection by stating that any information communicated via social media that’s relative to the AFD is the sole property of the AFD. This includes our intellectual property, such as our logo, name, uniform, equipment, etc., as well as photos and written content.

This added protection is crucial because employees aren’t always mindful of how they use social media sites when sharing information about the AFD, but they need to realize that the information they share could be used in ways they haven’t considered. For example, a firefighter could innocently tweet about a call he’d been on recently, but that information could be passed to an attorney who’s suing the city over the incident. Or a firefighter could post a photo from a call she ran on her Facebook page only to find out later that a third party copied and pasted the photo to an adult website.

There are too many “what-if” type situations like those described above, which is why the AFD thought it best to establish a property ownership caveat. Truthfully, it’s as much for the employees’ protection as it is for the department.

First Amendment Rights
When establishing your own social media policy, it’s important to establish strict rules and/or guidelines, but you must also factor in the employee’s right to free speech as provided by the First Amendment.
A government employee has the right to freedom of speech, unless that speech impairs the public service that the employee is paid to provide. Their speech can be restricted, but the restriction must be very narrowly tailored to meet the needs of the given public service.

Social Media = Instant Notoriety
You probably heard about the Feb. 18 incident in Austin, when a man named Joseph Stack flew his single-engine airplane into the Echleon I building that housed local IRS offices; it made international news. But what you probably didn’t know was that several local media outlets first learned about the incident not from their scanners or reporters, but from a tweet sent out by a passerby who took a photo with his cell phone, uploaded it and immediately sent it out to everyone he knew. As a result, Austin was thrust onto the international stage in just a few seconds—literally. So if you think you have complete control over the dissemination of information on the fire and/or rescue scene, think again.

If you don’t currently have a social media policy, the time has come to be proactive and institute one. They’re great tools when used properly and a vital part of protecting your department’s reputation and image among your community.

If you don’t understand social media or social media policy, set aside some time to study the different sites. Start a Facebook or Twitter account and familiarize yourself with how they function, their privacy policies and how each one can work to your advantage.

If you simply don’t have the time to do some research on your own, I’m sure there’s more than one person on your staff who’s a social media buff and can teach you all about it. Whatever you do, don’t wait for something to happen to your department or one of your members to enact a policy. By then, it will be too late.

The days of waiting to catch up on current events by watching the evening news at 5, 6 and 10 p.m. are long gone. We live in a 24/7 world where anyone with a cell phone camera can capture your story, your mistake or your embarrassing moment and send it out to the entire world, if they so choose. You owe it to your organization and your employees to know the benefits, as well as the risks, involved with social media.

Michelle DeCrane is the public information and marketing manager for the Austin Fire Department.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. SUBSCRIBE to FIRERESCUE

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Comment by Art "ChiefReason" Goodrich on September 24, 2010 at 10:38am
Excellent article.
It is unfortunate that some employees believe that a very narrowly defined social media policy "limits" their free speech. They fail to understand that employee conduct policies generally trump "free speech" issues, where the outcome could be detrimental.
For example: it is an employee's right to say to their supervisor that he/she sucks. They have a "right" to say it. And the company has a right to discipline them for saying it, up to and including termination.
Here is how I look at separation between personal and employment issues via social media; Facebook, for instance.
Post comments about their personal life including pictures is their right as a private citizen.
As soon as they post a picture of a fire truck, says anything regarding their job as a firefighter or someone else that is a firefighter or even says they were on a call; THAT is an employment issue. And that would fall under our department's social media policy.
The other concern is viruses. I am sure your city computers have ample protection, but for many small departments, they are still relying on a combination of Trend Micro and Spysweeper to protect them from viruses. I mean; if they can hack Facebook and Twitter, then we are just sitting ducks.
Thanks for the food for thought.

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