All of these examples are consequences of having a public platform where anyone can say just about anything.
Many in our industry are handling this by just not reading blogs — and they would most-likely never consider setting one up themselves. The problem with this approach is that the comments and potential for damage don't go away just because we choose to ignore them. So what can we do?
We need to first realize we are moving into a new era where information is king. People today are digesting news, ideas, and information at a rapid pace. Our old way of doing business where we work hard operating and maintaining services and infrastructure just isn't enough. If people don't hear from us, they listen to those who are talking about our work. And if what they are reading online is wrong, how are they to know if no one is out there posting the truth or telling our story?
Public relations and communication has never been more important for us and the public we serve than now. And there's no one better positioned, or with more knowledge, to tell our story than us.
But jumping into the digital media arena without preparation and understanding, however, isn't wise. Even people who advertise themselves as professionals in the social media field have taken some missteps (read Be Careful What You Post).
Problems can be avoided by discussing and developing a communication policy and strategy. Fortunately, there are many examples on the Internet. One of the more popular is the Air Force Web Posting Response Assessment diagram at right. (There's also some social media policies located under the "Good Reading and Resources" link at http://munigov.org.)
Once your organization has set some ground rules, it helps to research and watch how others in our field are already using this technology. The Washington State DOT could easily serve as our industry's poster child for social media. Their blog, WSDOTBLOG at http://wsdotblog.blogspot.com/, was launched in 2006. The site regularly offers stories, photos, and videos about projects, history, accidents, emergency operations, and other information related to transportation in the state.
Washington DOT also has a commenting policyavailable on the site. Each agency blog should establish a commenting policy like this to let readers know the terms under which they can comment. This helps to prevent any problems should someone try to post an inappropriate remark. I've also been told at conferences that, although visitor comments cannot be edited by blog owners, you can choose not to post someone's comment. Or you can decide to not allow comments at all. But I would encourage you to get your attorney on board to approve your decisions and the terms of any policies you post on a site.
Once you have some guidance established and a commenting policy in place (if needed), it's best to practice before going live. You can do this in-house without even creating a blog. One person can write a short post, send it out to others in the department or agency through e-mail or post it on a bulletin board or Intranet site, and let others comment. Then everyone can critique the post and the comments and offer suggestions on improving the format, tone, or presentation of materials.
All of this takes time, and at first you might be uncomfortable with managing a blog. But communication with each other and with those we serve is a vital part of our operation. And communicating has never been easier or less costly.
Look for follow-up posts describing the steps you can take to set up both a private and public blog for you or your agency.