Social Media Posts: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Firefighters and other government employees are often held to a higher ethical standard than the general public. Therefore, we must be extra mindful of what we post on social media.

Social media can be an effective way to express the good work we do for the community. But there are limits on its use, primarily because we work for the government.

Recently, several first responders have been fired or forced to resign over the inappropriate use of images or comments on their personal social media.

In March 2019, a Lakeland, Fla. paramedic resigned after a citizen complained about his social media posts, including a picture of blood on the floor of an ambulance. That was the second time an employee at that fire department had resigned over social media posts.

In 2016, seven first responders lost their jobs over derogatory social media posts about Black Lives Matter protesters in Columbia, S.C. The county’s interim administrator, Gerald Seals, said in a news article that he made this decision because these employees “serve citizens in times of duress.”

“The statements on social media were threatening and could be taken as the county having individuals, who because of their bias, may adjust their care – and that erodes public trust,” Seals said.

We need to be mindful of what we post on our personal social media. Meanwhile, fire departments need to balance the benefits of free speech with comment moderation.

Legal and Moral Issues

Because we’re held to a higher moral and ethical standard than the general public, ourpersonal conduct can affect our official job duties.

Employers, particularly government employers, have the right to limit or discipline the personal social media of their employees, said Melemaikalani Moniz, a lawyer, in a blog on the Freedom Forum Institute’s website.

Whether that speech is protected under the First Amendment, which is exceptionally complicated, depends on the situation, she said. It hinges on whether the employee was speaking as a private citizen and whether the post was about a social, political or community issue. Ultimately, courts must weigh the employer’s interest in fulfilling its public mission against the employee’s interest in speaking freely, Moniz said.

“In instances where government employees spoke out on social media concerning their official duties, courts have frequently found that their speech is not protected by the First Amendment,” she said.

Develop a Plan

At the same time, social media can effectively help us communicate the work we do for the public and the causes we support without co-workers, the community and elected officials.  It  helps uscontrol and promote our image, message and brand.

Kristi Dalton, the founder of Government Social Media who trains agencies on social media best practices, agreed. 

“Probably the most notable and important success stories in government social media are in the areas of public safety and public health,” Dalton said.

She suggests we build a social media strategic plan to stay on target, use a reference sheet for frequently used hashtags and create content templates with fill-in-the-blank sections to save time.

The content templates might pose questions, such as:

  • How many of you have ever been to the Reno Balloon Races?
  • Did you know how many people or animals were rescued from fires last year?
  • Have you ever considered joining our team? These posts should stress how firefighting is a rewarding way to give back to the community.

Meanwhile, short videos and photos of your team at work usually drive the most engagement.   

A key message of the IAFF’s Social Media Legal Issues and Guidelines is: if in doubt, leave it out.  

“If you feel unsure about posting something – listen to the warning bells,” the report said. “You could be fired over breaking confidentiality, bashing your employer, pornographic images flaunting drug and alcohol use, racist, sexist and homophobic rants or misrepresentation of position.”

Here are some IAFF recommendations on drafting departmental social media guidelines:

  • Stress that social networking sites are open to the public and that organization goals and negotiation strategies should not be posted.  
  • Provide a clear indication of what is prohibited and a clear description of the penalties.
  • Be careful who you assign to manage social media networks. Determine who can post items and what items are appropriate.
  • Be clear on administrator’s rights and who owns your social media pages. For checks and balances, all administrators should have equal rights.
  • Balance content: Try to present government information, which can be boring, in an interesting and engaging ways.
  • Build a group of online supporters and link to other content.
  • Create unique content or get consent and use attribution when using content created by other people.
  • Clearly explain department policy and how employee use will be monitored.
  • Caution employees that they should have no expectation of privacy while using the internet on employer equipment.

The IAFF also recommends we take these steps when using personal social media:

  • Use common sense when posting online. Even if you delete information, it may still be stored on your computer.
  • Know your city’s social media policy.
  • Think before you post. If in doubt, leave it out.
  • Take responsibility for what you post. If you say something online that gets you into hot water, don’t wait to apologize.
  • Don’t publish hearsay, innuendos or confidential information about the union, the fire department, media or elected officials.
  • Don’t post abusive, insubordinate, incendiary or disloyal remarks or images  about elected leaders, fire departments, the media or other firefighters.
  • Avoid posts that will put you under scrutiny by your employer.
  • Don’t post anything based on emotion or when feeling politically attacked.
  • Give proper credit for copyrighted images and other intellectual property.
  • Never post legally protected personal information that you may have access to on the job.

Resources:

Dalton, K.  Why Most Government Social Media Policies Suck (2017) Retrieved from https://www.govtech.com/govgirl/Why-Most-Government-Social-Media-Policies-Suck.html

Moniz, M. To Tweet or Not to Tweet: Government Employees and Social Media (April 24, 2017). Retrieved from https://www.freedomforuminstitute.org/first-amendment-center/topics/freedom-of-speech-2/free-speech-and-government-employees-overview/to-tweet-or-not-to-tweet-government-employees-and-social-media/

Florida Paramedic Resigns After Social Media Posts. (2019) Retrieved from https://www.jems.com/articles/news/2019/03/florida-paramedic-resigns-after-social-media-posts-discovered.html

LeBlanc, C. 3 Additional EMS Employees Terminated Over Facebook Posts (2016) Retrieved from https://www.ems1.com/ems-management/articles/108684048-3-additional-EMS-employees-terminated-over-Facebook-posts/

Williams, M., Mechak, M. Social Media Legal Issues and Guidelines (2016) Retrieved from http://services.prod.iaff.org/ContentFile/Get/11365