How Public Entities Can Deal With the Changing World of Social Media
By DENNIS MOLENAAR, vice president of risk control for OneBeacon Government Risks, a member of OneBeacon Insurance Group
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King incident, arguably the most famous police-brutality case in recent history and a game-changer in the realm of public entities and law enforcement. After a high-speed chase and subsequent pullover, Rodney King was beaten by several Los Angeles police officers. The incident was recorded by local citizens on a personal video camera and later released to the news media. The officers involved were charged with using excessive force and police misconduct, charges that may never have come about without the bystander video.
The video evidence central to the Rodney King story would not be nearly as surprising today as it was in 1991. It seems that nowadays everyone has a cell phone with a built-in camera, providing the ability to film anyone, including government employees. The Internet provides the platform to disseminate the movie to a global audience. It only takes a quick Google search to discover the mishaps of your local public official caught on film, or a politically incorrect statement by a member of law enforcement.
Now, recordings of our words, images and sounds make for an endless archive, turning almost everything into a public record. One of the biggest changes prompted by this social media innovation is the permanence of our words and actions.
These new technologies are changing the role of public-sector risk management today and shaping the future role of risk managers. How can those tasked with handling public risk mitigate the exposures that come with technologies that enable such easy and permanent recording? What are some of the risks these advances create and how can they be avoided?
For example, how should public entities handle involvement in social networks by employees? How much should public entities be held accountable for employee actions online during personal time? This is a relatively new matter that is still playing out in the public-entity realm today, and the liability issues surrounding the use of social media--such as employees posting critical or political statements, professionally inappropriate comments toward a protected class or slanderous comments, just to name a few--are only beginning to be understood.
It is likely that future legislation will be enacted to help determine the best course of action for public entities in dealing with these liability issues. In the meantime, each entity should review, update and maintain social media and overall Internet policies and procedures, which each employee should be familiar with and adhere to.
With new technologies making a public-entity employee's every move the next potential YouTube sensation, public risk managers are in a tough spot. How do you best mitigate the risks that these technologies create for your entity?
Be aware. This is often the best defense against employee missteps. Just by acknowledging that any of our actions could potentially be recorded by video, audio or even just in words (think "tweets"), potential legal risks can be avoided. Encourage staff to assume that every conversation is a public record and that every situation is monitored. They should be comfortable with anything they do or say being repeated back or shown to them at a later date.
Track emergency communications. Technological enhancements have also delivered rather sophisticated communications systems. In fact, it is possible for public entities to track police and fire vehicles using GPS, while also recording any audio transmissions that may occur. Surprisingly, in many situations involving inappropriate statements by employees that result in claims, conversations were being monitored by way of emergency radio communications.
Update policies and guidelines. Public risk managers need to always be mindful of the law and create policies and guidelines that will help employees adhere to those standards. Employees should be provided with specific instructions for a variety of situations, such as working with community citizens or publishing to social networks. These policies also should be reviewed regularly with employees. Be sure that your policies account for all potential worst-case scenarios for your entity.
While it is up to each entity to determine its own policies and guidelines, it is recommended that these policies reflect the nature of the entities' function and its employee's activities. For example, undercover policemen should refrain from posting information about their cases and perhaps even their position as police officers to protect themselves and other officers. Similarly, individuals who work with juveniles or sensitive material should be careful not to post anything that is prohibited by law or department policy.
Targeted training. While we know that training is inherently important for all employees, it's often something easier said than done, with smaller staff numbers and budget cuts. Simply reviewing policies on an annual basis may not be sufficient. The good news is that new technology has made training a simpler, more accessible process. Many cost-effective, online training opportunities are available specifically addressing the needs of public-entity employees, making the process easier.
With technological advancement, the key is to ensure that employees are aware and understand the policies and guidelines are for handling certain, potentially risky situations. With good policies and guidelines, combined with a robust training program, public risk managers can rest a bit easier and worry less about the potential consequences of employee and public official actions being forever memorialized in the public domain.
May 1, 2011
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