Social Media in Public Works 101 - Facebook

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In this series we're going to discuss many different online social media tools. Out of all of them, Facebook is not only the most used website, but also the site attracting the most controversy. I'm not sure what has pushed Facebook into the eye of the social media storm, but if I had to guess, I would choose its popularity. It's so well-known that many people believe Facebook is social media. Even so, it's the one tool I've been more and more hesitant to recommend to colleagues for professional use without first giving some background and cautionary advice.

Just what is Facebook?

According to the website, people can use Facebook "to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them." But this simplistic explanation doesn't come close to preparing you for what you'll find once you join as a member and begin interacting with others already there. Here's a quick rundown of what I've found there since joining in 2007:

  • Discussions about absolutely anything
  • Photos of just about anything
  • Videos and music covering every topic/genre
  • Event announcements
  • Polls
  • Games
  • Information and links to other websites
  • Coupons
  • Advertisements
  • Private messaging system

Example of Facebook Feed PostWith the exception of the private messages, all of this is delivered through a running feed of posts from people with whom you have chosen to connect or "friend."

While initially this feed of information might prove useful, if not properly controlled, you can soon find yourself viewing content you never thought you'd see. For example, most of the photos in my feed are very nice or interesting just like the photo you see in this post. But occasionally sprinkled in that feed are photos of dead and abused people and animals or photos with pornographic content. Definitely content I do not want to have on my screen at home or at work. Of course, these types of photos are not allowed on Facebook and will be taken down if reported. But there's still a chance they can show up in your feed before that happens. There's also been exploits on the site that seem to push these types of photos to everyone's feed. And when that happens, you can't do much to keep them out of your feed.

Who's on Facebook?

After learning what can happen to your Facebook feed, you might wonder who in the world would join such a site? According to Facebook's website, there were "955 million monthly active users at the end of June 2012." Of these, approximately 81% were outside the U.S. and Canada. As of the end of June 2012, there were an average 552 million active users each day.

According to the Socialbakers website, there were about 156 million users in the U.S. — or about one in two people. And Infographiclabs reports a gender split of 43% male/57% female. Based on these statistics, there's a very good chance about one out of two of you are like me and already have a Facebook account.

Why use Facebook?

It seems most people are using the site for entirely social reasons — to connect and keep up with family and friends, play games, or just hang out and talk to people from around the world. And if you join and keep your number of friends low, keep your privacy settings restrictive, and use caution when clicking on things, you'll probably have a positive experience most of the time. As you add friends, open up your settings, and branch out to use more of the games and applications, you expose yourself to more of the risks mentioned above.

One reason I don't pull people over to the computer and encourage them to create a Facebook account solely for professional reasons is because the site seems to be primarily focused on personal relationships. While we care very much about our citizens, we don't really need to know the details of their personal lives. And they don't want to know about ours. Oh yeah, there's also that risk for unacceptable content to pop up on a government computer.

However, many government agencies are on Facebook and using it quite successfully. So how we can use it in public works — and should we?

How to leverage Facebook as a public works department

Facebook Page ExampleAlthough accounts on Facebook can only be created by individuals, Facebook has given its members the ability to create "pages" or sites representing businesses, brands, or organizations. So some public works professionals take this opportunity to add a professional side to their Facebook experience. They create a page for their public works department for the purpose of delivering information to citizens. And for it to be successful, all they need to do is encourage people they serve to "like" their page because when someone "likes" a page, they see all of the information posted by that page.

Citizens can also access a department's page in the same manner they would access a website. Overall, it's an easy and quick way to post information that is accessible to many people, if they are on Facebook. You can see an example of a page in the image included in this post. (Sorry it is not a public works related page — Facebook does not allow screenshots of their site to be used so I had to use an image supplied by Facebook.)

Following are the types of information many public works departments regularly share on their pages:

  • Event announcements
  • Road closures, water main breaks, sewer repairs, etc.
  • Schedules for garbage, recycling, and brush pick ups
  • Educational content including videos, audio, photos
  • Links to other local government resources
  • Construction updates
  • Emergency operation updates (i.e.,, snow removal operations)

Facebook also offers a lot of management options for pages. You can add other individuals to help you manage your department's page, and you can access statistics showing the activity on your page. You can restrict who sees your department's page based on age or country. You can also choose whether to allow others to post on your page. This is important if you're concerned about what type of content could end up on your official page, although you have the ability to delete comments posted by others.

Facebook also offers individuals the ability to create groups. However, this option does not seem as popular for departments. This is probably because most departments are using Facebook to share information — not manage an online group of citizens.

How to leverage Facebook as a public works professional

Not all people in public works are going to create a page for their own department. So how can an individual use Facebook in a professional capacity? One way is by "liking" pages related to public works. Then you will always have a steady stream of public works news showing up in your feed. What more could a public works professional want? Over the years I've liked about 600 pages. Here are a few you might want to check out:

You can also friend your colleagues if you know they will regularly post content related to your profession. But again, be aware that Facebook has a very personal side so don't be surprised if you see an occasional post about their personal life. And remember, as Facebook friends, they will also have access to any personal information you might post based on the privacy settings you have chosen.

The most important thing to remember: Don't post things on Facebook that you would not want showing up on the big screen in Times Square. With the way social media is going, you just never know if someday it may end up there. And all you have to do is Google "fired for Facebook post" to read about all the people who lost their job after the wrong person saw one of their posts.

But it's not all public

Not everything on the site is public. You can adjust your privacy settings so what you post can't be seen by just anyone. There's also another method of communicating privately through Facebook — you have the ability to "message" your friends, which acts like a type of private chat feature. Messages do not post to your timeline nor do they show up in anyone else's feed. It's still amazing to me that so many people who use Facebook aren't aware of this feature.

How can the message feature work to your professional advantage? If, for some reason, you don't have a colleague's email but are "friends" on Facebook, you can message them through the site. And you can also message pages that you have "liked" if you would like to get information or learn more about a post on their page.

Where do we go from here?

If you're still with me, you've most likely made up your mind to at least try it out. The good thing is, like all the other social media sites out there, if you decide it's not for you, you can always delete your account. So let's get to joining, which just happens to be so very easy!

Just head on over to If the signup form is displayed, fill it out and click the "signup button." Otherwise find the button and click it to be taken to the form. After you go through the signup steps, make sure to fill out at least a portion of your profile. Facebook should prompt you to do this. If for some reason you don't get that prompt, after you are logged in go to your timeline by clicking your name in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. Then click "About" at the bottom of the header box of your timeline page. This will take you to your profile information and allow you to edit it.

Some first good steps

Once you’re a member, I would encourage you to start out slow and spend some time checking out the place. Friend a few colleagues who regularly post professional information and “like” a few pages related to public works.

There's so very much more to learn about using Facebook than what I've shared here. I believe it is the most complex social media tool out there and because of this deserves some caution and extra research:

  • Don't post information on your timeline unless you are OK with anyone in the world reading it.
  • Be aware that if you play games, they will automatically generate posts for you unless you turn this feature off. Or you can always go into your timeline and hide any post or set the game settings so only you see those posts.
  • Hiding Game Posts: also be aware that your friends may play games that post automatically to their timeline, which then shows up in your feed. If you don't want to see all these game posts in your feed, but don't want to "de-friend" the people playing games, you can hide these posts. Hover your mouse over the right upper corner of the post until an arrow appears. Click this arrow to bring up a drop-down menu. Choose "Hide all from ***." Now, you will no longer see posts from this game in your feed.
  • Managing Notifications: Depending on your settings, you might start getting a lot of email from Facebook. For example, if you "like" someone's post, you might end up getting an email every time someone comments or likes it too. Most people don't want all this email. You can turn it off by clicking the little arrow in the upper right hand corner of the screen, choosing "Account Settings," then "Notifications," then editing how you want to be notified for each activity.
  • Be aware of privacy laws: Whether you are asked by your employer for access to your Facebook account, or whether you are the one asking an employee for access, be aware of any related laws in your state. Better yet, ask your attorney how this should be handled.
  • Review Facebook's terms of use with your agency's attorney before creating any pages for your organization.



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About the Blogger

Pam Broviak

thumbnail image A former senior editor of PUBLIC WORKS, Pam Broviak publishes the Public Works Group Blog at (All views expressed in this blog are her own and not those of PUBLIC WORKS.)