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Ethics Feature: Social Media in Public Life
Reprinted with permission from the January 2009 issue of Public Management (PM) magazine published by ICMA, the premier local government leadership and management organization, located in Washington, D.C.

Scenario: Blogs are a part of the social fabric of this community so it wasn't unusual when a new one entered the blogosphere. This blogger, going only by the signature City Scoop, professed to have the definitive, inside scoop on city hall politics and activities.

Scoop's musings didn't generate much interest until several postings turned out to be accurate and were reported in the blog well ahead of the mainstream media. In fact, one item hit the blog the day before it was reported at a city council meeting. None of the information reported in the blog was confidential, and it all eventually entered the public domain.

After several weeks, the buzz in the blogosphere and on the street was that Scoop really did have a seat inside city hall. A persistent fellow blogger speculated that, given the topics addressed and the nature of the information revealed, the blogger had to be the city manager!

If all of the information reported in the blog was eventually released to the public and none of it was protected by confidentiality laws, was it ethical for the manager or a senior staff member to blog anonymously about local government matters?

Advice: A blog can be an effective tool in a manager's arsenal for keeping the public engaged in local government matters. The ICMA Code of Ethics emphasizes the importance of keeping the community informed on local government affairs and encouraging communication between residents and all local government officials and staff.

But equally important is communicating in a transparent manner. Even if the information is a matter of public record, the credibility of both the manager and the organization is harmed when information is presented in less than a clear, purposeful, and transparent manner. The practice of anonymous blogging raises important questions in readers' minds about what would motivate a professional to disguise his or her identity when writing about the organization.

It's My Space!

Scenario: A former employee filed a lawsuit against the county alleging in part that the county manager created a hostile work environment and discriminated against female employees. As evidence of her claim, she submitted photos and materials posted on the county manager's personal social networking page.

The photos showed the manager drinking at tailgate parties, socializing at various local bars, and partying with some female county employees after an all-staff picnic. Although the manager was not depicted in these photos in the best light, the photos were pretty mild.

Of greater concern were several sexist statements attributed to the county manager on his page and the responses posted by others on his message board. All of the facts presented in the case eventually exonerated the county manager.

He had the opportunity to tell both the court and the public that the sexist comments he posted were just a running joke that he had with his wife and were not intended for public consumption. He was truly mortified by the whole situation and publicly apologized for embarrassing the county.

Advice: Today's commonsense understanding is that you should have no expectation of privacy when you post anything on the Internet. Employers in both the private and public sector have limited tolerance for employees who embarrass their organizations by posting inappropriate material on their social networks.

The vetting process to determine whether a candidate for a position is suitable now often includes a review of the content on their social network, blogs, or Web sites. Before posting content to a social network or allowing friends in to contribute, think about whether it reflects well on you as a professional and enhances your public role.

One old-fashioned test works for new technology, too: Would you be okay with putting a specific photo or comment on the front page of the newspaper for the world to see? The high standard set by the ICMA Code of Ethics requires members to conduct themselves so as to maintain public confidence in their profession, their local government, and in their performance of the public trust.
Arizona City/County Management Association
1820 W. Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ 85007   •   Phone: (602) 258-5786   •   Fax: (602) 253-3874   •