George Mason University

News at Mason

Master’s cohort creates social media ‘toolkit’ for Virginia’s elected officials

August 14, 2017   /   by Buzz McClain

A still frame from the report students put together for elected officials. Content provided.

State and local government leaders in Virginia now have a guidebook on how to use social media to reach their constituents, thanks to a capstone project undertaken by master’s students at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

The 32-page “Changing Landscapes of Constituent Communications: A Guide for Elected Leaders” and the accompanying multimedia presentation are intended to help government officials and politicians in the commonwealth understand the social media aspect of their jobs, said C. J. Oakley, one of the 16 students in George Mason Professor Frank Shafroth’s Master of Public Administration cohort class.

“Social media is ingrained in so many people but there are so many pitfalls—and more are emerging everyday,” said Oakley, who manages the prisoner programs of the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center for the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office.

When trying to increase public support for an initiative or encourage voter turnout, for example, the students “were trying to figure out what would be useful to an elected official for communicating to the public,” Oakley said.

The toolkit explains how to develop a social media strategy, as well as how to target messaging to specific demographics, how to prevent confusion in messaging and what resources to trust when posting.

The ethics of social media is a major component of the guidebook, because the authors agreed that government leaders needed to be aware of legalities that are unique to social media, including those involving open meeting laws and conflicts of interest.

“There are legal pitfalls that are just now popping up” in government settings, Oakley said. As an example he pointed to a recent incident in Loudoun County, Va., in which a government leader deleted a constituent’s comment on a personal Facebook page.

“That equated to censorship,” he said, “because the official was an elected official. That was a surprise to me. You would never think about that.”

The same thing happened in early August with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and three staffers, whose erasure of citizens’ Facebook postings on the governor’s official page generated a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Shafroth said the toolkit has been made available to government leaders in each city and county in Virginia and has been distributed by the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties.

Sixteen Mason students—five women and 11 men—worked on the project. All are employed by regional government agencies. Oakley said he’s happy that what he and his classmates created will have long-term benefits for elected officials and Virginia citizens.

It is also available in the reports section of the website of Mason’s Center for State and Local Government Leadership, of which Shafroth is the founding director.

“We are at a turning point in Virginia history where physical town halls or state capital buildings are no longer required for Virginia’s citizens and taxpayers to communicate with the state’s state and local leaders,” Shafroth said.