Guide to the role of councillors on social media
Councillors can use social media to communicate with their local community and listen in on the conversations people are having. This guide explores the role councillors can play on social media, how to engage in healthy debate and what to consider when publishing or sharing.
Understanding the different roles that councillors can play on social media
- Information-sharing from the council
- Information-sharing with the community
- Civic and ceremonial roles
- The virtual doorstep
- Having a measured response to online opinions
- Considering party political dimensions for councillors on social media
Engaging in healthy debate and tackling misinformation online
- Abiding by the golden rule
- Encouraging positive, polite and constructive debate
- Remembering that your behaviour influences others
- Using your voice to tackle misinformation and inaccuracy
Considering the Code of Conduct while being active on social media
- Is information already in the public domain?
- Be aware of what you share
- The Councillor Code of Conduct still applies
Social media guidance for councillors
The LGA has produced a series of guides to support councillors in using social media.
Understanding the different roles that councillors can play on social media
It’s important to understand how social media can enable councillors to play different roles. Having clarity about this will help councillors to consider their online activity, the types of information to share, what to prioritise, and how to use their time to achieve the greatest impact.
Information-sharing from the council
Councillors have a unique role to play on social media as elected representatives. Councillors have access to information and knowledge at an earlier stage than most people and can use social media to disseminate it to the public. It is important to first make sure you are allowed to make information public (more on this below).
Councillors can share updates about council meetings and decisions made in them, votes, planning applications and deadlines, information on events and much more. Over time, councillors will start to understand what types of council information interest local residents most – based on the quality, and quantity, of engagement with posts.
Committee chairs, cabinet members, group or council leaders also have an opportunity to share information that is relevant to their enhanced council role, including to an audience wider than the ward they represent.
Councillors have a unique role to play on social media as elected representatives.
Information sharing with the community
Councillors are in key positions to be able to access and share a wide range of information beyond that from their own council. Councillors are often on mailing lists and at meetings where information relevant to their local community is shared. This might be from another local authority, for example, from the county council or from an MP or business group. You can enhance your reach by building your reputation with your audience for being someone who shares such information.
Civic and ceremonial roles
Social media offers councillors who hold civic or ceremonial roles for a council a real opportunity to reach out and engage with the public beyond meeting them in person or coverage in traditional media, such as local newspapers.
Mayors are often the public face of councils. Greater social media activity by them can really help to raise both the profile of the council and awareness of what the mayor (or equivalent) is doing. This can increase public participation and understanding of council’s work, increasing the impact of the social media content.
The virtual doorstep
Councillors who are active on social media have a great opportunity to monitor – or ‘take the temperature’ of – public opinion.
There will always be a place for opinion polls and surveys which can help measure views formally including officially measuring performance. But by being part of community Facebook groups and keeping an eye on what’s being talked about, or monitoring what people are sharing on Twitter by following local hashtags, councillors can quickly take note of what local residents think – and act on it if they need to.
This might be monitoring how the public responds to council decisions or community issues. Monitoring what’s happening on social media can be likened to being able to have hundreds and hundreds of doorstep conversations each week.
Having a measured response to online opinions
There is a risk that councillors can overreact to views being expressed online. It’s key to have a measured response and to remember that not all residents’ views are represented online. Listening to opinions online is a helpful way to get a flavour of views in your local area, but it is important to consider the bigger overall picture too.
Councillors and the party political dimension on social media
Many, but not all, councillors are members of a party political group. This adds to their function a further role as advocates of their political party in the community. It is important to remember that, in your role as a councillor, you are a representative of everyone in your ward, not only those who support your political party. Indeed, those councillors who are most popular are usually those that have built a reputation for helping everyone in their community regardless of their political views.
Party politics can also be one of the main triggers for abuse and aggression on social media which can be particularly corrosive if it is between councillors of different political parties on the same council. Residents do not like to see their councillors being rude or hostile to one another on social media. It is vital that any political disagreements are handled politely and with respect to opponents.
Being a member of a political party can also often draw councillors into issues well outside the remit or control of their local council. This is particularly true if their party is in Government – when councillors may find themselves criticised by residents or other councillors for decisions made in Westminster. It is up to the individual to decide whether to engage with these issues. Getting involved with one national issue will mean that residents expect your thoughts on others too.
Engaging in healthy debate and tackling misinformation
People in the public eye, including councillors, play an important role within the community, and are regarded as influential in their local area. This is just as true online and on social media as it would be in person or in traditional media. The actions, tone, manner, and language that councillors use online has wide impact – not just personally, but for many others online.
Abide by the golden rule
Follow the golden rule – do as you would be done by. It is never pleasant to be on the receiving end of negative posts or abusive comments. As a councillor, you need to rise above such behaviour, make sure the way you respond to others is polite and positive, and encourage healthy debate on your own social media accounts and those of others.
Encouraging positive, polite and constructive debate
There is a range of ways to encourage positive behaviour online by others. Your first step should be to add the LGA Digital citizenship ‘rules of engagement’ infographics to your accounts. These are downloadable infographics which are easy to add to your profile to make it clear to other social media users that you intend to use your account in a positive and constructive manner.
When you post to your own accounts, make sure you frame your requests for engagement from other users in a positive way. Ask people to keep their posts positive and polite, reminding them that this is possible even if they disagree with other people’s views.
Finally, you can make sure that the way you respond to what other people share is also polite and positive, even if you disagree with it or if it is from your political opponents.
Remember – your behaviour influences others
Your behaviour as a councillor on social media will influence others. If members of the public see comments a councillor has made which are not constructive or are negative, it is more likely to make them think that it’s ok for them to use poor behaviour online as well. This doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with what people say, but the tone in which you do so is important.
Remember – it is not defensible to complain that you are on the receiving end of negativity or abuse, if comments you’ve made yourself are not polite.
Use your voice to tackle misinformation and inaccuracy
If you see information being shared that is inaccurate or false, say so. You can comment on the post saying that it isn’t true. You could follow this up with a private or direct message to the person sharing the information telling them it’s false and asking them to remove the post.
It is also very important for councillors to verify the accuracy of what they are posting or sharing themselves. It is easy to quickly share content from elsewhere without checking only to find, later, that it is inaccurate.
You can report posts to social media companies, flagging them as being not true. Where relevant, you can report posts to council authorities, for example, to your council’s media team if you feel there might be need for rebuttal, or to your council’s monitoring officer.
Consider the Code of Conduct while being active on social media
Councillors need to be aware that they are personally responsible for the content they publish on any form of social media. Publishing an untrue statement about a person which is damaging to their reputation may incur a defamation action for which you will be personally liable. The same applies if you pass on any similar untrue statements you receive.
Is information already in the public domain?
Also consider if information you are considering sharing is already in the public domain or not. If it isn’t, is it information that is sensitive financially or politically? Think about what the ramifications might be for you personally if you share information on social media that has, up to that point, been confidential.
Be aware of what you share
Social media sites are in the public domain and it is important to ensure you are confident of the nature of the information you publish. Once published, content is almost impossible to control and may be manipulated without your consent, used in different contexts, or further distributed.
It’s highly recommended that councillors should never post or share anything online or on social media that they would not be comfortable saying or sharing in a public meeting.
Using a Facebook Page for your councillor activity on Facebook and a profile for your personal postings does allow separation. If you want to keep your social media activity private, you can set very strict privacy settings on your accounts. Most social media platforms do have the ability to do this, but they have different actions to do this, so make sure you have got it set right.
Overall, though, it is extremely important to remember that there is still a risk that posts or activity on your personal profile will be seen and shared publicly – no matter how strict your privacy settings are. Saying it is private is no defence.
The Councillor Code of Conduct still applies
The Councillor Code of Conduct and relevant legislation applies online and in social media. If you are referring online in any way to your role as a councillor, you are deemed to be acting in your ‘official capacity’ and any conduct may fall within the code.