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Social media: Perils and payoffs for public officials

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Social media is a two-edged sword, and once you press the “send” or “post” button, there is no going back. Sometimes, those comments can be costly.

Just ask Albuquerque Public Schools Superintendent Winston Brooks, whose barnyard animal Twitter references about state Public Education Department chief Hanna Skandera got him suspended for three days and played a role in the decision not to extend his contract.At-a-glance

Or ask Albuquerque school teacher Jessica Quintana, whose Facebook musing about killing a student for gluing his shoes to the classroom floor and pulling up tiles got her an eight-day suspension from her job.

Remember Steve Kush? The former executive director of the Bernalillo County Republican Party took to Twitter during a County Commission meeting and called a woman a “radical bitch” for her testimony in favor of raising the minimum wage. He also labeled County Commission Chairwoman Maggie Hart Stebbins a “Gestapo” for limiting speaker time at the podium. Kush, suspended indefinitely, has disappeared from the local political landscape.

Increasingly, those in leadership positions – whether it’s politics, education, government or business – use social media to spread information and keep in touch with their constituents, customers, colleagues, etc.

But the local leaders interviewed for this story are aware of, and cautious about, how it can and has backfired on others.

Some have opted to not use social media, themselves, but have designated people in their offices to handle that chore.

“It gives them an out,” said Ashley Drake Gephard, a Web designer and social-media manager with Drake Intel Group in Albuquerque. “If something posted comes back to embarrass them, they can blame it on a miscommunication by a staffer. If they didn’t personally post it, they can say, ‘Oh, I never would have said that.’ It’s a type of Reaganesque ‘plausible deniability.’ ”

Others use social media, but have certain rules they have placed on themselves.

University of New Mexico President Robert Frank said one of the dangers of tweeting is that people tend to forget that “it’s a much more public forum” than emailing. For that reason, he noted “I don’t tweet to individual people. There’s a way to do that, but I don’t even want to learn how.” Instead, he personally posts only university-related items to his UNM Twitter account, one of two self-imposed rules he follows. The other rule is, don’t tweet at night.

“You’re tired and make mistakes and you might have a drink and maybe not be as sharp. So I only tweet at night if it’s something big and newsworthy. Otherwise, I do it during the day, when I’m alert, focused sharp and full of energy.”

Frank said he does not maintain a UNM Facebook account and his personal Facebook page is “sorely neglected,” as is a blog he used to write.

City’s posting habits

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry is not quite as hands-on with social media. His office maintains Facebook and Twitter accounts, but he personally does not post to them. “I just don’t have a lot of time to do the mechanics of posting, so I have folks in the Mayor’s Office do that,” he said.

While there are no hard and fast rules, “my staff knows very distinctly that once something is posted, you can never get it back, so they must be matter of fact and not post opinion,” Berry said. “We use social media to communicate what we’re doing on behalf of the people who hired us – the voters.”

Albuquerque Interim Police Chief Allen Banks does not personally use social media, but the department was ranked 23rd among the top 50 most social media-friendly police departments in the country, according to MPH, an online resource focusing on public and health policy and administration.

APD has more than 8,100 followers on Twitter and nearly 3,400 “likes” on its Facebook page, said the department’s public information officer Tasia Martinez. It also has a sizeable presence on YouTube with videos on training, recruiting, crime prevention, arrests, investigative operations and general department news that may be of public interest.

Martinez controls the bulk of the content on APD’s social media accounts. “I don’t post anything that isn’t public information or anything laden with opinion,” she explained. “Just facts about ongoing investigations, persons of interest, suspects, press briefings – the same type of things I’d release to the media as the PIO. The media can’t cover every story we send or suggest, so social media gives us an opportunity to post those stories and be our own media source.”

Individual officers can, of course, have their own social media accounts, Martinez said, “but if they are identified as officers in their personal accounts, they are responsible for the content.”

Former Albuquerque gang unit officer Byron Economidy learned that the hard way. About the time he shot and killed a suspect during a 2011 traffic stop, it was discovered that his personal Facebook page listed his occupation as “human waste disposal.” The comment drew sharp criticism, and the post was removed, but was still included in an internal affairs investigation into the shooting. Economidy was later moved to a different job and suspended for four days for violating standard operating procedures concerning on- and off-duty conduct.

As a result of that incident, APD drafted a policy that sets guidelines for what is considered appropriate social media conduct on- and off-duty for officers and other APD personnel, Martinez said.

A communication tool

Gov. Susana Martinez has a Twitter account through her office, though it has been inactive for at least two years, and she has an active Facebook page that is maintained by her campaign office, said her communications director Enrique Knell. “She is involved in the content of what’s posted and either posts herself or directs that something be posted,” he said. In addition, the Office of the Governor has a Web page.

“She knows social media can be an effective tool for communicating with the public, and her administration uses social media to engage with and inform the public in many different ways.”

Knell noted that social media, including YouTube, has helped to promote the state Tourism Department’s “New Mexico True” campaign. The Children, Youth, and Families Department uses Facebook to help find adoptive families for foster children. And the New Mexico State Forestry Division uses multiple social media platforms to keep the public updated about wildfires.

Hart Stebbins, a target of Kush’s Twitter musings, does her own Twitter postings, an account she uses “to communicate what the county is doing,” she said, adding “I think it’s a great tool to share information.”

But she, too, is cautious. “I think certainly I am always aware that anything that goes out on social media is likely to be viewed by many people, and I always keep that in mind. I don’t use Facebook just because I don’t have time. My personal policy is always be factual and respectful.”

Nearly all of Bernalillo County’s social media postings are handled by internal website staff, said county public information officer Tia Bland. Employees, she said, can access county-controlled social media for up to 30 minutes daily at work “because they’re one of the audiences we want to reach through social media.”

Think before tweeting

Even before the Winston Brooks Twitter tornado, the Albuquerque Public Schools was developing a social media policy, said APS executive director of communications Monica Armenta. That policy is expected to be presented soon to the APS Board, and if approved, be implemented in time for the new school semester, she said. In the meantime, Brooks, who was “a novice” to Twitter, has voluntarily stopped using it, she said.

The reality is that social media is here to stay, and it is still evolving as people find ever more creative ways to use it, said Benson Hendrix, an adjunct instructor of social media in the UNM Department of Communications and Journalism.

“In the last decade, it has revolutionized how we as a society communicate. People and organizations can speak directly to their followers, engage that audience and encourage them to join the conversation.”

The instantaneous nature of social media has made it a “primary source of breaking news for many,” he said. That, however, has raised some important caveats and questions: Is that “news” delivered as opinion or is it factual and verifiable? How will the information be used and is the message being communicated the one that’s intended?

“Context is important,” he said, and difficult to fully present in a 140-character Twitter message or an isolated photo posted to Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.

“Before you hit the send button, take a few moments and think about what you’ve typed or photographed, and ask yourself if you’d be comfortable with your boss or your mother or your spouse seeing it.”

Or, Hendrix posed, in a worse case scenario, what if something posted to a social media platform winds up on the 10 p.m. TV newscast or on the front page of the Albuquerque Journal “and not in a flattering way.”

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