Social media has proven to be one of the most impactful tools for local governments to engage citizens and encourage local park exploration and activity engagement. Its platforms lend themselves to the sharing of beautiful photography, location-specific postings and event-participant promotions — all of which are ideal for park and recreation departments. Like all good things, however, your social media accounts need boundaries.
Every public- and private-sector entity that uses social media needs to have internal policies in place to ensure proper, safe and legal use of the social platforms that are becoming the new normal for how citizens learn, communicate and share. Not only do social media policies ensure consistency and use of best practices, but they will also keep your staff from inadvertently violating the public’s trust or disappointing followers. Establishing and following social media policies will allow your park and rec department to maintain social media accounts your citizens perceive as valuable and choose to engage with — helping you meet your communication and promotion goals.
Social Media Legal Considerations
All individuals who manage a social media account need to have a basic understanding of some legal considerations that surround these platforms to help protect your park and rec department from an inadvertent violation. (Note: this information is not intended to serve as legal guidance; always consult your legal department for proper counseling and advice.) Make sure everyone in your park and rec department with access to post to your social media accounts understands the following three basic principles:
Photographs found online are typically copyrighted. Most likely, your parks and rec department will share photos you take of your parks, trails, local scenery and public events. Understand, however, that even though an endless supply of photos is only a Google Image search away, they are the property of the individual who took the picture and cannot be shared by a public- or private-sector entity without permission. This requirement pertains to pictures that are as seemingly innocuous as those that depict sporting equipment, technology devices or holiday imagery.
You’ll want to secure permission to share photos of citizens. Consult your legal department regarding policies your park and rec department should follow when it comes to sharing pictures of citizens. You may take gorgeous photos of a group of kids participating in your community’s youth art class, but without the written permission of the parents, you may not want to post them on social media. Photos of citizens participating in outdoor public events or in which the face of the individual is obscured or unclear may not be subject to the same legal restrictions, but wherever minors are concerned, err on the side of caution and seek legal guidance.
Any contests or promotions must follow the platform’s terms of service. Some social media platforms outline specific guidelines in their terms of service as to how to operate contests and promotions that use their platforms. Refer to them to familiarize yourself with such terms before building and executing a social media contest.
Creating Social Media Policies that Protect Your Citizens and Your Park and Rec Department
With an understanding of the three aforementioned legal considerations, ensure your park and rec department’s social media guidelines address the following scenarios and policies:
Outline goals for your social media accounts, and determine the types of content you want to share. Don’t underestimate the importance of establishing goals for your park and rec department’s social media use. Whether you are trying to promote activities, increase awareness about available public resources or educate citizens on the importance of advocacy, your goals should directly impact the types of content and messages you share.
For example, if your main priority is to promote park and rec activities, you may want to restrict posts to only messages focused around events and decide, as a rule, that your department will not share news or editorial content. Having such policies ensures a consistent experience for followers, and will encourage those citizens who care about your goals to connect with your park and rec department on social media.
Determine which employees may post to your social media accounts. It’s best to restrict access to your social media accounts to a single individual, or a small number of staff members who work closely together to ensure consistently coordinated messages. The more people who have access to your profiles, the more chances there are for duplicative posts, conflicting posts or posts that seem inconsistent in their messaging and tone.
For example, if one staff member shares a news story about a campfire that got out of control in one of your local parks, and an hour later, another staff member posts a photo of camping citizens roasting marshmallows, your social media followers may feel your park and rec department is sending inconsistent messages. Such perceptions may damage your ability to gain followers, likes, shares, retweets and regrams.
Identify when you will need a citizen’s permission to share his or her photo. If you’re responsible for photographing local events, it may be logistically difficult to obtain written permission to share photos of every single citizen you photograph. As a proactive step to getting the approvals you need, consider including language in your event registration materials that allows individuals to consent to have their picture, or a picture of their child, used in social media. An example of such language might state:
I grant [Community Name], its representatives and employees the right to take photographs of me and my property in connection with the community activity for which I am registering to participate. I authorize [Community Name], to copyright, use, and publish the same in print and/or electronically. I agree that [Community Name] may use such photographs of me with or without my name and for any lawful purpose, including publicity, illustration, advertising, social media, and Web content.
Your legal department can guide you further.
Remember that even more important than deciding when you need permission is making sure you have it. It can be tempting to quickly snap a beautiful photo of kids at a local event and post it right away to social media, but imagine how parents may feel if they, unexpectedly, came across a picture on social media that revealed their child’s current location.
Ensure all messaging is consistent with your community’s brand voice. Your community is unique, and it has a brand all its own. Remember, however, that your city, county or town has one brand and one voice, regardless of how many departments have individual social media accounts.. Citizens who follow your park and rec social media accounts likely also follow your primary community social accounts, which is why the language and voice used in your department-specific accounts should align with those of your primary accounts. Your communications department can help you understand essential considerations, like tone, style, municipal terminology and other community-specific communication considerations, that will ensure a consistent citizen interaction experience.
Establish policies regarding direct citizen communications. Social media provides both one-to-many, and one-to-one communications, which means it’s a direct channel for citizens to reach you to ask questions, share feedback and make suggestions. In this way, social media is an excellent tool for increasing citizen engagement. However, if mismanaged, it can quickly lead to citizen disappointment on a public platform.
Make sure you and your staff determine who is responsible for responding to direct messages and comments, and in what time frame. Facebook pages include an indicator of your page’s response rate and response time. If a citizen sees your page administrators don’t respond consistently, or in a timely manner, he or she will be less likely to attempt to engage with you via your social account in the future.
Establish a policy for responding to negative feedback. One of the most challenging aspects of managing a social media account for any entity can be responding to public criticism. Having a platform that allows direct, public access to citizens means your park and rec department is opening itself up to both public praise and criticism. It will, undoubtedly, be disappointing to see a social media comment from someone complaining about an aspect of a recent event, but as your municipality knows, governing requires listening, accepting feedback and using it to make improvements moving forward. Your park and rec department shouldn’t fear criticism. More importantly, you can’t ignore it, delete it or block the commenter. It will do more good for your department’s reputation for your followers to see you have responded to a concern than to ignore it.
Establish department policies for who will respond to negative messages or comments, how quickly, and with what type of response. You may want to consider a standard response such as:
Thank you for your feedback. We value the input of our citizens and are sorry that you felt [insert concern here]. Please know that we will consider this feedback when planning future [event type].
If a comment is hypercritical or includes personal information, such as an accusation of something a representative of your community or a citizen may have said or done, encourage the commenter to discuss further outside of the social media channel. There is no need for such correspondence to be public. Consider a message such as, “We are sorry to hear that (events) occurred and would like to discuss with you further. Please call our department at (contact information), or message us privately and tell us how we may reach you.”
Establish policies for when you should delete negative comments. While your park and rec department should respond to negative comments, there are times when it is acceptable to delete them. Your department will want to outline clear guidelines to help staff identify these instances. You should consider removing social media posts that could be deemed as offensive, inappropriate, libel or slander. Your legal counsel can guide you further. It would also be acceptable for your park and rec department to delete spam comments. These may be fake accounts posting sales or promotional messages with links to products or services unrelated to your community. In the worst cases, the links may be malicious and transmit viruses or malware to anyone who clicks them.
Managing your park and rec department’s social media accounts should be a fun and creative part of your day, not a burden or stress point. With proper guidelines and staff training, you can take advantage of all the benefits that social media offers for connecting to citizens, with minimal risk of privacy, copyright and legal concerns.
Landon Schenck is the General Manager of CivicRec.