16 Rules for using social media networks

Government workers, like the rest of the world, have found their way onto social networking and microblogging sites, particularly Twitter. The growing government presence on these sites is both a benefit for citizens and a concern for multiple levels of government managers.

In light of this, here are some do's and don'ts for government employees and their supervisors as they explore the world of social networking.

1) DO allow your employees to use social networking sites. Your employees are the real face of your organization -- as seen by citizens. Average citizens might not read your press releases, but they will remember a low-level employee who helped them and provided useful information. For example, the average farmer probably won't follow the social media posts from the secretary of agriculture. But that same farmer could find great value through social media interaction with, say, the feed corn expert at the Agricultural Research Service. Likewise, I've received Twitter messages and tech advice from government folks I might never have met otherwise, including a couple of messages from the chief technology officer of a Cabinet-level agency, whom I had not been able to meet any other way. (How cool is that?)

2) DO set minimal standards for how your employees should behave if they elect to use social networks. At the minimum, if they are sharing information and identifying themselves as government employees, they should conduct themselves in a way that will not embarrass your agency or cause problems for citizens. Still, give them some flexibility for this. Citizens enjoy interacting with personalities, not drones.

3) DO encourage the use of client software for employees who interface with social media systems. If you don't yet understand why these social networks are so powerful, maybe you've only visited the Web sites. If so, it's likely you've missed much of their extra functionality. For Twitter, I use TweetDeck client software on my PC ( Or you also might be interested in Thwirl, (, TwitterFox ( or one of several other client solutions. These clients give you an interface into the vast data feeds carried by Twitter. They help you track, manage, filter and instantly reply to individuals or groups of people. You can even filter and see messages for specific events as they happen. Without client software, you end up trying to drink from the social media firehose. Doing that makes it very difficult to gulp the exact info you need.

4) DO decide, as your first step, whether the face you present to the social media world will be a brand or a person. For government, the brand might be your agency or your department. If you're a vendor, the brand might be your company, or a specific product. On the other hand, if you present yourself as a person, then you are just that -- a person posting messages and interacting with others. As a person, you are NOT just an entity acting as a news or marketing platform. Surprisingly, both approaches (brand vs. people) are common on social media systems. For example, on Twitter, you can find the brands of NASA, the Coast Guard and the House of Representatives. These are official entities that mostly post press releases and agency links. Likewise, you also can find individuals from each of those government organizations on Twitter. But these are people who represent only themselves and their work, not the official agency brand. Trying to serve as both a brand and an individual can confuse people. Avoid it if possible.

5) DO use an effective icon. Social media systems are all about personal connections. If you represent a brand, show your agency seal or company logo. If you represent yourself, show your real face. Be who you are and your connections will come. If your icon is left blank, your list of followers will end up fairly blank too.

6) DON'T forget to establish yourself as a subject expert in a very specific niche. Become the go-to person for that niche and people will actually point other people your way.

7) DO follow wisely. On a social media site such as Twitter, "following" someone is the official way of saying that you intend to "listen in" on that person's social media messages. It's very useful to follow the people you know are thought leaders in your area. You will learn something from them, and you can plug quickly into their network of other friends and experts. Look to see who they are following and you may discover other thought leaders. Then, occasionally trim the list of people you follow. Too many messages flowing by can keep you from noticing and participating in the stuff that's most valuable to you. On the other hand, don't worry if hundreds of people are following you. That's a good thing.

8) DON'T tweet too often and don't tweet about nothing. Add real value, be it comments or links. For example, we do want to know a) what you are working on today (we may have info to share), b) that you've released a new study, or c) that you're in a K Street Starbucks -- in case we're nearby. But we don’t want to know that you're wearing your favorite shirt, that you spilled your coffee, or that the person next to you has committed some fashion faux pas. Too much of this, and people will quickly stop following.

9) DO use hash tags, which means marking a keyword with # so others can find it. When the US Airways plane went down in New York's Hudson River in January, hundreds of people shared details – including first photos and emergency information – by adding #usair to their messages. People at conferences often find each other or share ideas using #conferencename.

10) DO use Twitter or other social media clients on your phone. Geography is a major component of social media, especially at large conferences or in emergency situations. I use the free Twidroid client to Twitter from my Android phone. It will even pull in details on my geographic information system coordinates, if I care to enable that function.

11) DO expand beyond Twitter as you explore social media networks. Keep in mind that Twitter is not yet profitable. Thus it's difficult to say where it will go in the long term. Look into other systems such as Yammer, which allows groups to set up private social networks for their own use. Also check out the group functionality on places like Facebook and StumbleUpon.

12) Do exploit Real Simple Syndication. When interacting with multiple social media sites, you might want to take the following approach. You can set up an RSS feed for all of your general messages (as opposed to the messages that you only target to specific people). Then enable the social media sites, including Twitter and Facebook, to pull in your RSS feed from a central location. This lets you send the same groups of messages to each site, making you look a lot busier than you really are. :)

13) However, DON'T reverse the process outlined above. For example, Twitter creates an RSS feed for you of all of your posts. If you want, you could import that feed into Facebook or other sites. Avoid this temptation. A message that makes sense within the context of Twitter, where you are responding to others or commenting on events or links, can look very disjointed when copied to another system where people don't see the initial information you are reacting to. Context is everything.

14) DO Relay the stuff you find most valuable. This helps others find it too. On Twitter, this is called "re-tweeting." People enjoy having their posts re-tweeted to a larger audience. And it helps you make friends. These friends will be more likely to pass along your stuff in the future.

15) DO use Twitter for emergency management or to share event details. See the US Airways example above. Now think of how this could be used for bad weather, emergency situations or for re-routing public transportation.

16) DO realize that most people are exactly who they claim to be on social network sites. Still, you might very well find people who lie about who they are and what they do. This is no different than the rest of the Internet. Proceed with caution.

We could list dozens more do's and don'ts, but these are the basics. The rest can be quickly learned. Giving government employees a good, solid foundation for using social networks is the first step toward using these systems to improve citizen interactions and service.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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