10 Tips for Federal Employees on the Personal Use Of Social Media

Your personal accounts are your own, but there are limits to what you can do with them.

On Monday, the Federal Communicators Network Professional Standards Working Group released social media tips for federal employees. I am part of the steering committee and a volunteer in this effort to promote the development of governmentwide standards for professional conduct and quality communication.

Disclaimer: The tips below are meant to help clarify some issues that federal employees may not be aware of, or that may be confusing. The list is not meant to replace a thorough review of law, policy, and official guidance or to restrict or alter federal employees' rights and responsibilities in any way. When in doubt, please do not use this as a substitute for obtaining reliable direction from an official source.

Like all FCN documents, this is unofficial in nature; volunteers' opinions, as well as publications, do not represent official guidance, the views of their federal agencies, or the views of the government as a whole.

These tips may be freely reproduced and distributed. If you do so, please include the disclaimer above so that readers are not misled into thinking that this is an official government document.

The 10 Tips

  1. First Amendment Rights: Your personal social media profiles are your own, and for the most part, the federal government does not intend to control online activities that are purely personal (an example of an exception is the Hatch Act, which contains certain limits on employee free speech). Also, the same principles apply whether your speech occurs over social media or in more traditional ways, e.g. publishing a letter to the editor of a newspaper.
  2. Special Restrictions: Find out from your agency whether there are any special restrictions on your social media activity beyond the general rules that apply to all federal employees. For example, this might apply if you work for a law enforcement agency.
  3. If You Are Aware of Misconduct: Reporting fraud, waste and abuse to the appropriate authorities is lawful, but leaking classified or otherwise confidential information over the internet is not.
  4. Disclaimer: When people know that you work for the government, they are prone to assuming that you speak for the government, even when you’re not. So in discussing your personal views, it helps to be upfront about the fact that you are not speaking in an official capacity. Example: “The content of this communication is entirely my own and does not reflect the opinions of or endorsement by any federal agency or the government as a whole.”
  5. Opinions about Your Agency: You are entitled to discuss, analyze or disagree with your agency about publicly available information. That said, your agency may require you to tell them if you do so. Check your public affairs/public communications policy for more information, and do not hesitate to ask your Office of Public Affairs and/or your ethics officer for guidance.
  6. No “Impersonation”: While you are free to describe your interests, experiences and ideas on unofficial time, do not use unofficial time or personal social media accounts to act as an official representative of your agency without authorization.
  7. Political Activity: Regarding personal political activity, read the Hatch Act. (The text is readily available online, along with an extensive set of frequently asked questions.)
  8. No Right to Privacy on Work Devices: Read and follow your agency’s policies on information technology use. Some allow you to use your work computer to access your personal accounts on a limited basis. If you do use your work device, whether desktop computer or mobile phone, to access personal accounts, understand that your activity may be monitored by the agency.
  9. Keep Personal Devices Personal: Don’t use your personal devices or accounts for agency activity, because then it is subject to legal discovery (including FOIA) in the event of litigation. Also, use “smart” passwords (guidance on these is readily available online), and change them frequently.
  10. Targeting by Foreign Spies: Be careful who you “friend” online. Foreign intelligence agents are known to target federal employees specifically, for a variety of reasons.

About This Initiative

In August 2016, the Federal Communicators Network published a research paper demonstrating the urgent need for consistent interagency communication standards. This “cheat sheet” is our first attempt at providing information of a general nature on a federal communication topic of interest. Future issues will address training, career progression, definitions of common terms, and more. To access the research paper visit http://www.slideshare.net/FCN-Presentations. To provide feedback or get involved, email fedcommnetwork@gmail.com.

About FCN

The Federal Communicators Network is a professional community of Federal employees offering communications best practices, training, networking, and other opportunities for Federal government communicators.

Born out of the White House in 1995, FCN brings more than 800 communications professionals from across government to lead and refine communications and marketing strategy in support of agency missions. Working with organizations across the Executive Branch and in state and local governments, international governments, and non-profit and private partners, FCN aims to sharpen the delivery of the federal government's mission through digital-savvy communications strategy, branding, messaging, and engagement.

FCN membership is open to U.S. federal government employees and contractors with a government email address. As a courtesy, state, local, and tribal government employees are also welcome. You become a member by signing up for the listserv. (Click here.) If you run into any difficulty, you can also contact FCN at fedcommnetwork@gmail.com.

Copyright 2017 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity.