Government/Nonprofit Policy: Use of Social Media

Why government and nonprofit organizations should set up
Social Media Profiles


It may not be obvious at first, but to the web-savvy policy maker, establishing social media profiles and promoting government agencies and non-profit organizations through social media venues such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter makes a lot of sense.

When I first published this article, only a handful of agencies had a social media presence. Now, it seems that we have reached the tipping point. Just take a look at a sampling of government agencies on YouTube.

Government agencies and non-profit organizations on YouTube




































































If your organization has not developed a social media policy or strategy, it may be time to get started. The benefits of government and nonprofit involvement in social media outreach programs are many and diverse:

National Security

Twitter-savvy agencies can broadcast (and re-broadcast) special alerts and emergency announcements, e.g.,

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Twitter
  • Center for Disease Control on Twitter
  • Department of Homeland Security on Twitter

Public Relations

Agencies and departments can proactive share success stories about the good things that government is doing, e.g.,

  • Environmental Protection Agency on Twitter
  • US Geological Survey on Twitter
  • on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace


Tech-savvy agencies are reaching out to enthusiasts and children to help inspire and educate, e.g.,

  • NASA on Twitter
  • National Science Foundation (NSF) on Twitter

Customer Service

Agencies are using sites like Twitter and Facebook to provide customer service updates like office hours, government services, deadlines, etc., e.g.,

  • Social Security Administration
  • Veterans Administration
  • State Department

Public Service

Government leaders can call on citizens to participate in social matters and civilization

  • Peace Corps
  • Help America Vote
  • National and Community Service


Youth-savvy recruiters are leveraging Facebook, MySpace and Twitter to attract new recruits, e.g.,

  • US Army on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube
  • US Coast Guard on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube
  • US Air Force on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube
  • US Marines on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube

How and why is Social Media Marketing effective?


There are psychological and motivational reasons why social media, in general, is so viral and effective. People are curious, they want to be in the know, they want to be current and up-to-date with popular culture and issues. People want to be part of a group, part of the tribe, part of society.  People are social creatures and social media expedites and automates that human nature.  Through social media, information passes quickly through word-of-mouth communication. It passes instantaneously and is multiplied exponentially when it goes online.

For example, say that I have set up a Facebook Page for my organization. You have 150 friends on your FacebookProfile and you become a Fan of my Facebook Page. Then, every time one of your 150 friends logs into their Facebook account, they will see in the sidebar that you are a Fan of my Facebook Page and perhaps they should become a Fan too. If you are a Fan of something then perhaps I should also be a fan of that something. Through peer connections and very subtle and subliminal third-party references and recommendations, word spreads like a virus. That’s why they call it viral marketing.

The same thing happens with Twitter. I visit your Twitter profile and see that you are following 147 other people on Twitter. Out of Curiosity, I check out who you are following and then, if the Twitter profile looks interesting, I’ll follow them as well. Then, when people see me following them, they will in turn follow me.

What is Social Media?


Social media are primarily Internet- and mobile-based tools for sharing and discussing information among people. The interaction among members, along with community generated content, is what is commonly referred to as web 2.0. Government use of social media is increasingly referred to as gov 2.0. The emergence of social media platforms, technologies, integration and portals is referred to as new media.

Some of the original social media sites include:

  • Craigslist – popular bulletin board system for classified advertising
  • MySpace – personal pages for artists, entertainers and youths
  • Wikipedia – community generated and edited encyclopedia on everything
  • Flickr – photo sharing site
  • AOL – instant messaging, groups, Love @ AOL

Later social media venues include that focused on bookmarking and reviews:

  • Digg
  • Delicious
  • Stumbleupon
  • Technorati
  • Reddit
  • Yelp

The more contemporary social media sites that have taken the world by storm since about 2005 include:

  • Facebook – started by Harvard students and originally intended exclusively for students
  • YouTube – a video sharing site that is, in many ways, more popular than cable TV
  • Twitter – originally a dispatch communication system for taxi drivers now a micro-blogging site

At this point, the only social media venues that really matter, in my opinion are:

  1. Twitter – to deliver RSS feeds, alerts and customer service
  2. Facebook – to provide a consolidated news stream, photos, videos and demographic insight. Also an extraordinary venue for economical and targeted advertising
  3. YouTube – exclusively for delivering video documentaries and public service announcements (PSAs). Also a great venue for advertising with excellent analytical insights for demographics

5 Levels of Social Media Engagement

  1. Listen to and monitor social chatter
  2. Brand your organization across social media platforms
  3. Broadcast your message across social media
  4. Promote your social media profile and social bookmarking
  5. Engage your audience through social media



Probably the first and most obvious step for the social media novice is to simply start watching, listening and monitoring what is going on in the social mediasphere.  You don’t need to have an account on YouTube to get on YouTube and start searching and watching videos.  Start with your organization.  See if there are any videos about or produced by your organization on YouTube.  Use the YouTube search feature and search for videos using the keyword phrases that your targeted audience would most likely use in their quest for videos and information.

I realize that many government agencies and/or their IT or Office of the Chief Information Officer (OCIO) prohibit or prevent government employees from accessing social media sites like YouTube and Twitter from their government workstations.  So, you may want to try to get an isolated computer that is off the network or a dedicated DSN line or wireless workstation so you can monitor these sites without being connected to the rest of the Local Area Network (LAN).

There are several Twitter tools that allow you to monitor Twitter without actually going to  Some tools require that you download and install an application.  Again, many IT shops and agencies prohibit employees from downloading and installing software applications.  So, you may need to exercise your political tact when approaching your IT department.  But, some great Twitter monitoring tools include:

  • – Tweet Deck, your personal browser for staying in touch with what’s happening now, connecting you with your contacts across Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, etc.
  • – email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your choice of query or topic.

Real-time search (Twitter, YouTube, Facebook)

  • – Realtime social search – a new generation of search engine which looks at the worldwide web in a new way.  By tracking discussions on Twitter, we can help our users find out what’s important to them right now in real time.
  • – a realtime search engine that crawls the links people share on Twitter, Digg and other social sharing services, then indexes the content on those pages in seconds. The end result is a search experience that allows users to find the freshest, most socially-relevant content from across the realtime web.
  • – a new kind of search engine, with a new way of looking at the Internet. Topsy doesn’t think the Internet is a collection of documents. Or even a web of documents. Topsy sees the Internet as a stream of conversations. Topsy treats people differently from the webpages they create and the things they say. And Topsy sees that people in every community are connected in a web of relationships, where each person influences other people to read, talk and think about things.



A very important step, which you should not delay, is to establish social media profiles across the web and brand them appropriately and consisently.  What complicates this process is a few things.  For one, every social media platform has a different standard for usernames and permanent (personalized, vanity) URLs.  For organizations with long names or acronyms that are common or similar to other organizations, you may have a real challenge.

For government agencies and organizations with a short URL followed by a dot gov or dot org, then I would recommend using your URL as your username.  For example, did a great job of branding their username across all of their social media profiles:


In addition, it is important that you brand your social media profile with your agency seal or logo, that you identify the URL or domain name to your website and, if possible, that you modify the background image (background pattern or background graphic) and the profile colors as consistently as possible with your website.



Now that you understand the language and culture of social media and you have established and branded your social media profiles, now it is time to start putting out content.  An easy way to dip your toe into the water is to syndicate an RSS feed of your blog or your website updates and feed it into Twitter.  My favorite tool for this is

WARNING: If you do not use a reputable Twitter feed tool then it’s possible or URL shortner then it’s possible for unscrupulous third-party hackers to hi-jack your Twitter ID and put out SPAM in your name.  Even worse, they can directly message your friends and followers, making them think it is you and send them to a bad neighborhood web site.

For this reason, I only trust Twitterfeed as my blog to Twitter automation tool.

You can also integrate your blogging activity into your Linkedin profile and your Twitter activity into your Facebook Page.  Third party services such as FriendFeed can also help you integrate and consolidate your social media activity.


All systems are go and it’s time to start promoting both your social media profiles and to encourage social media activity.  The easiest way to do this is through installing social media chicklets onto your site in prominant places to encourage people to bookmark your page and share links to your site on their social media profiles.  This can be a very valuable tool in viral marketing and social media.

It is important to know that social media chicklets are used a few different ways:

  1. Follow me on Twitter or Visit our Facebook Page
  2. Bookmark me on Delicious, Review my site on StumbleUpon, Submit to Digg
  3. Subscribe to our YouTube Channel or Become a Facebook Fan
  4. Share a link to this site on your Facebook profile or Tweet (Retweet) about us

Be sure to use all methods of social media chicklets and widgets as you promote your site and your web visitors social media (viral marketing) activities.


Only designated people should be in charge of engaging your audience on behalf of the organization.  This should probably belong to one of these deparmental offices:

  • Executive Office
  • Public Affairs or Public Relations Office
  • Marketing Department
  • Customer Relationship Management or Customer Service
  • External Communications Office

The IT department can faciliate the messaging (the messaging agent) but should probably not be tasked as the external communicator.

CAUTION: It is important that the organization know and be cognizant of the fact that direct response twittering and wall-to-wall communications are viewed in public forums.  This is not like talking on the phone on a private one-on-one conversation.  Your tone and attitude must always be in check when communicating in public forums.

Legal implications associated with gov 2.0 and social networking

Agency, organization and department heads should be aware of the legal implications of participating in social media. Moreover, organizations should take proactive steps to mitigate the risks of social media participation.  Legal implications include, but are not limited to:

  • Privacy Laws
  • Accessibility Accessibility refers to the design and engineering of produc... More Laws ( Section 508 compliance Section 508 Section 508 is part of the Rehabilitation Act that requires ... More is part of the Rehabilitation Act that requires ... More )
  • Records Management Laws
  • Terms of Use Policies
  • Copyrights

Privacy rights of individuals who become friends, fans or followers of government agencies. Risks can be mitigated by following these standard operating procedures:

Account. Government representatives who set up accounts should use a general office e-mail account, agency or office name and general office phone number if possible.

Restrict to Find People and Follow People. Government policy regarding use of social networking sites should discourage agencies from following private citizen or commercial profiles from within their government social networking profile. While we cannot necessarily stop all people from being Friends, Fans or Following us, we should not click onto the profiles of our Friends, Fans and Followers.

Comments and Discussions. When possible, disallow comments and discussions on social profiles. Refrain from participating in dialogue and online discussions with social profile visitors.

Accessibility rights governed by Section 508 compliance Section 508 is part of the Rehabilitation Act that requires ... More and web accessibility for people with visual and hearing disabilities. Risks can be mitigated by following these standard operating procedures:

Video captions and transcriptions. Embed captions within videos as part of the post production process. Provide transcripts of videos and attempt to include these transcripts on the social networking site. Maintain Section 508 compliant videos, captions and transcripts on the agency’s website and attempt to link back to the agency website from the social networking site.

Photo – alternative descriptions. Name the photo after the description before uploading it to the social networking site. Write text captions and descriptions when social networking site makes these form fields available.

PDFs. Work to make document compliant in source format before converting to a PDF. Use formatting such as headers when applicable. Embed hyperlinks within the anchor text rather than supplying the physical URL to the right of anchor text.

Brand management of agency seals, logos and color or style guides. Risks can be mitigated by following these standard operating procedures:

Profile Picture. Government profiles should upload the agency seal or logo as their picture. It is important to use the agency seal or logo to demonstrate authenticity.

Profile Design. Government profiles should change the background image to the agency seal or logo and unclick the tile background check box. Design colors should either reflect the colors of the agency or be conservative with white, background, black text, blue links, light gray sidebar and dark gray or black sidebar border. The reasons why colors and background are important are primarily for Section 508 compliance (web accessibility) and secondarily for professionalism and consistency with agency branding and style guide.

Records management requirements as mandated by the Federal Records Act. All books, papers, maps, photographs, machine-readable materials, or other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, made or received by an agency of the U.S. Government under Federal law or in connection with the transaction of public business must be preserved. Risks can be mitigated by following these standard operating procedures:

Duplicate, not create. Avoid creating new material on social networking sites. Instead, use existing material from existing websites or previously published documents. The exception would be special alerts and announcements. But again, usually these have been already created for public use and public dissemination.

Refrain from making comments. Unless you are a designated spokesperson working in the organization’s Office of Public Affairs or part of a designated Customer Service team, you should probably refrain from making comments or responding to other comments on your social media profiles.

Terms of Use. Ability for a government representative to accept the legal terms and conditions on behalf of the government as part of the process and requirements for creating an account. These risks can be mitigated by following these standard operating procedures:

Obtain legal review. First, check to see if parent organizations or central government organizations such as GSA United States (US) General Services Administration (GSA) is ... More or OMB have already developed direct agreements with the social networking site in question. If not, copy the legal terms of use agreement and send to agency legal affairs office for review before accepting agreement on behalf of the U.S. government.

Use general information. If you are the person who is setting up the organizational Facebook Page on behalf of your organization, do not use your personal information, personal name, telephone number, website or e-mail address. Be sure to use the highest-level telephone number, address, domain name, etc. For date of birth, I recommend using the date that the organization was founded or created.

Sign-up using Government negotiated Terms of Use. Some social media venues, like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have pre-negotiated Terms of Use policies for certain levels of government and non-profit organizations. Try to see if your organization fits within these criterion and sign-up under one of these policies.

Copy rights of video footage and photos uploaded by government representatives. Risks can be mitigated by following these standard operating procedures:

Agency source materials. Use only photos and videos produced by the federal government or contractors working directly on behalf of the federal government.

Obtain written copyrights. If copyrighted materials are use, be sure to get and maintain physical records of copy right licenses and honor any branding or labeling requirements specified in the copy right license.

The demographic profile of the intended target audience combined with the well-defined mission, purpose and goal of the social media initiative should also play an important part of a government agency’s policy on the use of social media.

Government agencies and non-profit organizations on Facebook


Government agencies and non-profit organizations on Twitter


List of Top Government/Nonprofit YouTube Channels

  • – US Environmental Protection Agency YouTube Channel
  • – White House government YouTube Channel
  • – US Department of Education government YouTube Channel
  • – State Department government YouTube Channel
  • – Federal Emergency Management Administration government
  • – National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration
  • – U.S. Department of Education YouTube channel
  • – Social Security Administration
  • – Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
  • government YouTube Channel
  • – Center for Disease Control YouTube Channel
  • – National Institute of Science and Technology
  • – Securities and Exchange Commission on YouTube
  • – US General Accounting Office government YouTube Channel
  • – United States Census Bureau YouTube Channel
  • – Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) YouTube
  • – government YouTube Channel
  • – Veterans Health Administration YouTube
  • – NASA government YouTube Channel
  • – Federal Trade Commission government YouTube Channel
  • – US Department of Agriculture government YouTube Channel
  • – US Food and Drug Administration YouTube
  • government YouTube Channel
  • – Health and Human Services government YouTube Channel
  • government YouTube Channel
  • Congressional government YouTube Channel
  • Sentatorial government YouTube Channel
  • – US Department of Housing and Urban Development
  • government YouTube Channel
  • government YouTube Channel
  • government YouTube Channel
  • Peace Corps government YouTube Channel
  • – Small Business Administration government YouTube Channel
  • – United States Coast Guard YouTube Channel
  • – US Department of Homeland Security YouTube
  • – Internal Revenue Service government YouTube Channel
  • – USGS government YouTube Channel

Description, purpose and policy recommendations for specific social media

The next section defines and describes various social media platforms, their inherent risks and ways to mitigate these risks.


Twitter is an online social networking site where members can post short updates and keep up with other members through online profiles or cell phone text messages.

Effective applications for government use of Twitter would be to re-broadcast the agency’s blog headlines, news releases, testimonies, statements, public service announcements, accomplishments, job announcements and fact sheets. The emergency management community uses Twitter for local real-time updates and short nationwide announcements. Other uses of Twitter may be to alert citizens of emergency broadcasts, epidemics, recalls, hazardous materials incidents, national incidents, terrorists’ threats and natural disasters.

Legal implications of Twitter relate primarily to the privacy of members that follow government Twitter accounts and the appearance of commercial endorsement. These risks can be mitigated by restricting Settings and use of Follow ability.


YouTube is an online social networking site where members can post videos, comment on videos, provide video responses, mark videos as favorites and subscribe to video channels.

Effective applications for government use of YouTube would agency sponsored public service announcements, recruiting videos, licensed broadcasts, animated instructions, guides or user’s manuals and agency produced B-roll (supplemental or alternate footage available to be intercut with the main shot in an interview or documentary, footage provided free of charge to broadcast news organizations as a means of gaining free publicity). YouTube has a distinct following of segmented demographic audiences that regularly spend multiple hours per day on the site and login frequently. YouTube has a captive audience and provides advertising opportunities.


Facebook is an online social networking site where members can create videos, update their status, create photo albums, post photos, post videos, write on their wall, instant message with other members, send internal e-mail to other members, find friends, add friends, become fans of groups and organizations. Facebook integrates the best features from other sites like Twitter, YouTube, Flickr and MySpace.

Effective applications for government use of Facebook would agency sponsored public outreach programs that target segmented audiences, public service announcements, agency information, emergency broadcasts and other public affairs activities. Agencies would use Facebook primarily because it has a loyal audience with frequent logins that are often multiple times per day. Members often spend hours on Facebook every day. Facebook is a captive audience with targeted demographics and advertising opportunities.