We are fortunate to live in a world where innovative technology allows us to communicate in new and wondrous ways. Social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs now allow us to communicate instantaneously with potentially thousands of “fans” and “followers.” Just as the State Department and the other foreign affairs agencies have embraced these new communication tools, many of our members are using innovative ways to connect with audiences in their personal and professional capacities.
AFSA supports the use of social media. But any form of communication – via social media, telephone, e-mail, or just old-fashioned conversations – is governed by social norms and etiquette, and requires good judgment and common sense. Anyone who has ever said something they wish they hadn’t, tried to recall an e-mail sent in haste, or deleted a comment on Facebook understands the impact that the spoken and written word can have in our personal and professional lives. Electronic media – particularly anything broadcast over the internet – presents its own unique perils and challenges. As the saying goes, “What happens on the internet, stays on the internet.”
AFSA continues to examine the evolving issue of the use of social media by Foreign Service employees. In the meantime, we offer these words of advice to any of our members who are currently or planning to use social media, particularly blogs:
- Read the Existing Regulations. The current regulations regarding the use of social media can be found in 5 FAM 790 “Using Social Media.” See also 3 FAM 4170 "Review of Public Speaking, Teaching, Writing and Media Engagement." Although we understand that some of these rules with their cross-references to other FAM cites are confusing, we strongly recommend that any AFSA member using social media – especially where the lines between professional and personal use may be blurred – read them and if you don’t understand something - ask.
- Avoid Divulging Private and Confidential Information. Here is where many people run afoul of the regulations. Be sure not to divulge any information that includes confidential or personally identifiable information. Examples of these include but are not limited to visa cases, information about other individuals, or classified information that is already publicly available due to a previous unauthorized disclosure (for example, linking to WikiLeaks.)
- Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee. Even though you may have the required disclaimer on your blog, be aware that the public still may not differentiate between your official and private views. You should be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official, particularly when your blog uses the “hook” of your Foreign Service connections to attract readers.
- Review Your Privacy Settings. Make sure you are aware of the privacy settings of the social media platform you are using and how to adjust them. Platforms such as Facebook often change these settings without informing users. Periodic review of these settings is important, and we recommend having them set to the highest levels. For blogs, you may even want to consider restricting access so that only your family, friends and colleagues have access.
- Use Good Judgment. We can’t emphasize this enough. As we noted above, all forms of human communication require good judgment, tact, etc. And what happens on the internet, stays on the internet. When in doubt, leave it out.
- Contact Us If You Have Problems. If you are an AFSA member and are approached by management or Diplomatic Security regarding your use of social media, be sure to contact us so that we can assist you.
We hope the above information is useful. We do want to hear from our members regarding this evolving issue. If you have a concern or opinion regarding the use of social media, please let us know via www.afsa.org or call us at (202) 338-4045. For assistance with issues related to social media, please contact our labor management office at (202) 647-8160 or email AFSA’s Deputy General Counsel and subject matter expert, Raeka Safai, at SafaiR@state.gov.
This September 2012 guidance from the Department of State on "Social Media Dos and Don'ts" might also be helpful.