Propriety in digital and social media

The principles covering the use of social media by civil servants in both an official and personal capacity are the same as those that apply for any other media.

Digital technology has revolutionised the way in which people communicate and share information at local, national and international levels. Civil servants need to understand these changes so that they can operate effectively in a dynamic media environment.

Civil servants must adhere to the Civil Service Code online as well as offline. Social media is a public forum and the same considerations apply as would to speaking in public or writing something for publication, either officially or in a personal capacity outside of work.

Top 5 things to remember

Here are the top 5 things to bear in mind when using social and digital media, either at work or in a personal capacity:

  • Common sense: Social media helps us work openly and connect with the citizens we serve – just remember to apply common sense!
  • Adhere to the Civil Service Code: Apply the same standards online as are required offline, whether acting in an official or personal capacity.
  • Doubts? If in doubt, don’t post it.
  • Accuracy: Check the accuracy and sensitivity of what you are posting before pressing submit.
  • Permanent: Remember that once something is posted online, it’s very difficult to remove it.

It may also be useful to look at the Government Digital Service’s Social Media Playbook, which makes the case for using social media and provides helpful practical tips on creating and running social media accounts.

In addition, it is important to note that individual departments will frequently have their own social media policy and guidance, which should be consulted.

Language

When using official social media accounts such as Twitter, government communicators may use more informal language than for other channels. However, government communicators must remember that they are representing their department in this context and must apply the same high standards of accuracy as for all other official communications.

Checklist for running a departmental or policy social media account

  • Party Political – for original messages and retweets check that there is nothing party political within the body of the message, contained within links or in comments below a story. Official accounts must not be used for the further dissemination of messages from party political or otherwise partisan accounts.
  • Partisan – it is of course acceptable for a minister to hold strong opinions. However, the department does not hold partisan opinions as an organisation. In carrying out their duties, government communicators are able to represent the views and opinions of ministers only as they relate to HM Government and department issues.
  • Parliament – at all times government communicators must respect the primacy of Parliament.
  • Polemical – be sensitive to tone and guard against perceived attacks on particular interests, organisations or individuals.
  • Understanding – don’t act on auto pilot, ensure that you have read and fully understand messages before retweeting.
  • Commercial – we encourage activity that promotes UK trade and economic growth, and we support partnership working with business, the wider public and private sectors. We do not provide links that offer undue endorsement, or may be perceived as offering unfair commercial advantage to third parties. For guidance see Planning and Delivering Effective Communications Partnership Strategies (PDF, 337kb).
  • Confidential – at all times respect confidentiality, financial, legal and personal information. Do not discuss policy that has yet to be announced. Do not discuss ministerial movements.
  • Personal – do not disclose personal information about minsters or about yourself. An informal tone of voice is often desirable within agreed boundaries, but remember that when using official accounts you are the voice of the department. Do not make personal comments about tweeters. Never respond to someone being abusive about you, the department or ministers.
  • Isolation – tweets always need to have links and context. Media rebuttals should link to or at least cite the story you’re responding to or it will make no sense read in isolation.

Work-related personal accounts

It is often appropriate for named civil servants to run a work-related Twitter account, particularly where a civil servant has some form of public profile or is using social media in a direct work related capacity – for example, in open policy making. The above checklist applies to such accounts which must operate in accordance with the Civil Service Code, social media guidance for civil servants and relevant departmental guidance.

Further help and support

If in doubt, please contact your line manager, Director of Communications or the GCS Propriety Team – email gcs.propriety@cabinetoffice.gov.uk, or call 0207 276 2182.