I just saw this guidance on the personal use of social media from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the United States Foreign Service. The organization has close to 16,000 dues-paying members and represents over 28,000 active and retired Foreign Service employees of the Department of State, Agency for International Development (AID), Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS), Foreign Commercial Service (FCS), and International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). I believe this is the first guidance issued by AFSA on this subject. Republished below in full:
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 private 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 is currently examining 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 (pdf).” 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, personal and private 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 (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 with any legal or other issues.
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 e-mail AFSA’s lead attorney on the issue, Raeka Safai, at SafaiR@state.gov.
If you are a blogger in the FS community, I encourage you to take this opportunity to reach out to AFSA. Although “AFSA is currently examining the evolving issue of the use of social media by Foreign Service employees,” family members of Foreign Service employees are similarly affected. AFSA should hear the voices of family members so they have a fuller view of this issue. AFSA need to hear the stories and concerns of FSOs as well as family members so it can effectively craft a more comprehensive guidance in the future.
- Conversation with Self About Serial Blog Killers and the 21st Century Statecraft (diplopundit.net)
- Trends in Social Media: Are Most People Using Social? (socialmediaexaminer.com)
- Diplomats defend themselves against Perry criticism (gunnyg.wordpress.com)
- Lawyers Step Into It Through Social Media Incompetence (merrill-lad-magazine.com)