The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just issued an interim policy for employees who officially represent the agency online. I assume this apply to whomever is either writing on a blog, or running a group or editing a page on a social media, or responding to a post in his or her official capacity.
The policy is helpful in so that it reminds employees that they need to behave professionally and according to their existing code of ethics when they are acting as government employees. This includes being factual, transparent, maintaining public records as required, and so forth.
The policy provides also a list of steps that employees should follow in order to “represent EPA online in an official capacity”:
- Get management approval by estimating time to research and write a posting, response, or edit, likely viewership and value of participating and Importance of the issue
- Identify supporting sources, by providing links to EPA Web pages and other materials including video and audio (links to non-EPA information require a disclaimer against endorsement)
- Identify EPA affiliation, creating a profile on social media sites that identifies the person as an EPA employee , and use work email address.
- Inform the Web Content Coordinator, who is tasked with tracking these activities on behalf of the relevant program office or region.
The policy also includes a flow chart suggesting how to decide whether to respond online on EPA’s behalf.
While the policy brings some clarity to the kind of approach that should be taken to adequately communicate on social media, it misses a key aspect, which is the constantly blurring boundaries between personal and professional roles. On certain social media sites, users can have only one identity, so they need to accommodate their professional persona (i.e. their role as EPA employees) with their personal persona. Furthermore, there is a lot of value, especially when it comes to citizen engagement, in leveraging those blurring boundaries.
Whereas it is important to remind employees that they are supposed to behave ethically in whichever situation or time of the day when they can be associated to the agency (i..e. not just Mon to Fri, p am to 5 pm), it is also important to provide them with a degree of flexibility that makes their engagement with social networks truly useful to the agency.
This policy is great for those whose main job is external communication. This is clearly shown by the fact that they need to articulate a fully fledged business case for their managers (see point 1 above) and they are supposed to inform a web content manager rather than the program manager (see point 4 above).
But what about the many others who may occasionally use social media in a professional capacity (or in a personal capacity that may have professional impact)?
This policy seems to suggest that engagement in social media is only a part of communication strategy, and little else. But, as I said a while ago, engagement and communication are on a collision course. So what the EPA and other agencies also need is not a policy (codes of conduct and ethical programs usually suffice) but an engagement strategy based on letting employees engage by leveraging rather than fighting the unavoidable blurring of their personal and professional personas.