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Don't drink and tweet: Social media guidelines issued to councillors

By Kerry Ashdown | Staffordshire | News | Published:

County councillors are being urged not to post on social media if they have been drinking or are angry.

The advice is part of an updated set of guidelines that has been produced to help Staffordshire County Council members to avoid causing offence online.

They have also been warned not to hide their identity or give a pseudonym when making comments on social media.

The tips for councillors using social media:

  • “The best social media tool is common sense."
  • “Keep arguments off line."
  • “Don’t write in haste. Avoid writing when you are angry, upset, tired or have been drinking."
  • “Don’t retaliate to offensive or defamatory remarks made against you, ask the owner/person making them to remove them."
  • “Keep an eye on defamatory, untrue or abusive posts from others on your blog or page and remove them as soon as possible to avoid the perception that you condone such views and to prevent any potential libel action being taken "against you.
  • “Don’t hide your identity or use a pseudonym when making comments."
  • “Stop and think for a few minutes before you press post.”

The focus on social media standards at Staffordshire County Council follows a rise in complaints made against members and the national Review of Ethical Standards in Public Life, a report published by the Government’s Committee on Standards in Public Life (CPSL).

On Monday members of the county council’s audit and standards committee backed the inclusion of social media use in the code of conduct and the adoption of criteria for determining alleged breaches of the code in relation to social media.

A report to Monday’s meeting said: “To date this council’s code of conduct for members has reflected a ‘light touch’ approach.

"However, following an increase in the number of complaints made against members and the recent need to hold our first standards panel to consider one of those complaints, the CSPL's report presents a timely opportunity to review our code and processes."

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The new general undertaking for elected councillors calls on them to ensure their “use of social media is at all times respectful to the audience (both intended and co-incidental) and does not portray the actions or views of either the county council or (them) as a member of that council, as offensive. discriminatory, abusive, inflammatory or defamatory.

It continues: “Furthermore, I will endeavour to maintain a clear distinction between any actions and views that I publish via social media in a private, personal capacity from those published in my role of elected member.”

Professional v private

Committee members highlighted on Monday that residents did not always consider the personal and civic roles of councillors as separate.

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Councillor Susan Woodward said: “I support the recommendations but I have one or two questions relating to social media.

“I use social media but I find it difficult to understand in practice how to maintain a clear distinction between those two.

“As an opposition member I am not always going to agree with what the county council has to say. I will give my views as I see them – that may be determined by the leadership as bringing the county council into disrepute.

“I have had cause to raise concerns – there was an anonymous Twitter account that happened to be run by a council colleague. Who is going to police that?”

Councillor Jill Hood said: “I think it’s pretty much the same as when you walk down the street – the general public don’t see you and say ‘that’s Jill’ they say ‘that’s Jill the councillor’. We’re always a councillor in their eyes.

“I have seen lots of cases where abuse follows. I have been fortunate not to have experienced it but we have to not get baited or drawn in.

“These keyboard warriors are sitting at home and they’re abusive because we can’t see them. They probably wouldn’t be that way in the street."

The draft social media guidance in full

"Social media provides the public with the opportunity to enjoy freedom of speech and share their views and thoughts to the widest of audiences.

“The successful enjoyment of that freedom is however dependent on users having a clear understanding and recognition of what can be the fine line between sharing views and causing offence.

“The following guidance aims to help members stay on the right side of the fine line:

“The first and most overriding point to make is that anything shared on social media is legally deemed to be ‘published’. Do not publish anything that you would not consider saying to an individual or group of persons.

“What you’ve ‘said’ on the web is written down and it’s permanent.

“Never put an entry on a social media site that you wouldn’t want to see printed in a local newspaper attributed to you.

“Remember that whenever you act or appear to act in your official capacity on social media you should not bring the county council into disrepute.

“Don’t present your personal views, or those of any political party or interest group you belong to, as being those of the council.

“Respect the commitment in the code of conduct. In particular, treat others with respect; comply with equality laws; don’t bully, intimidate or harass; don’t bring the council into disrepute; or disclose confidential information.

“Remember that information and comments that you make can be broadcast to a large number of people more quickly than other media.

“Libel, copyright and data protection all still apply online.

“Own up: Social media is transparent. The best bloggers admit mistakes rather than try to cover them up (which isn’t possible on-line). Amending your text and acknowledgement your mistake – perhaps by putting a line through the offending words, inserting a correction or providing an update section at the bottom of a blog post – shows you are not pretending it never happened, and is much better than just deleting it when dealing with online misfires.”

Kerry Ashdown

By Kerry Ashdown
@KerryAshdownLDR

Local Democracy Reporter covering Staffordshire.

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