Protecting Your Agency in a Viral Social Media Incident

When a Comment Becomes a Crisis: What to Do When Going Viral Happens to You

In July 2016, four Skagit County sheriff’s deputies met for lunch at a local restaurant in Sedro Woolley, Wash., a spot they often patronized. As the deputies were leaving, a staff member pulled one of them aside and requested that he and his colleagues not return — and to spread the word that law enforcement officers were not welcome in the restaurant.

When the news made it to the Skagit County sheriff and his command staff, the sheriff did spread the word by posting a statement on the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. The reaction was swift. Public outrage on both sides grew by the minute — about half of the comments were in support of the deputies and the other half in support of the business. The post became the No.1 trending story on Facebook at the time. To date, it has had nearly 3 million views, been shared nearly 40,000 times and received more than 30,000 comments.

As the story was going viral, Skagit County Sheriff Will Reichardt met with the restaurant owner, who said everyone, including law enforcement, is welcome at his business. The sheriff posted an update to the Facebook post about the meeting and resolution. While the issue seemed to be resolved between the sheriff’s office and the restaurant, it was not over for Skagit County Communications Coordinator Bronlea Mishler.

“My first thought was, how is the county going to legally protect itself if there is a lawsuit for loss of business, or if there is some other incident that comes out of this where we could be legally at fault?” says Mishler. “I knew at the time we did not have any sort of social media archive in place, at least countywide, to capture and retain all of the content that occurred on social media involving the county.”

This incident convinced Mishler of the urgent need to get an archive system in place. Knowing it could take time to get funds approved to do so — time she didn’t have — she turned to ArchiveSocial Crisis Support, a free service that provides access to social media archiving and monitoring during a communica- tions crisis.

“I realized Crisis Support was probably the best and only way to cover us legally as everything was unfolding and I knew the longer we waited, the more risk we faced,” she says.

Social Media has Legal Ramifications
All 50 states have public records laws modeled after the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to ensure public access to government data. Some state public records laws encompass social media and many states have issued specific guidance for preserving social media records. The Washington Public Records Act requires that government agencies preserve public records regard- less of physical form — including digital records created through social media and the metadata behind those records.

“Just about anything we do is open to disclosure under FOIA, so we have to be extra cognizant of what we’re putting online and making sure we have records to back it up,” says Mishler.

Furthermore, agencies need to consider capturing and archiving third-party content. “How can we prove that everything out there hasn’t been changed or edited in a way that would be disingenuous or that comments haven’t been deleted?” says Mishler.

In this instance, Mishler relied on ArchiveSocial’s Crisis Support to capture and retain the records, even those that were posted before the archive was in place.

Crisis Support Lets You Focus on the Situation
Many local governments rely on time-consuming practices to comply with public records laws, such as taking screenshots and manually printing pages of posts. But this can be a risky tactic, especially in the event of a social media crisis.

An incident such as this often prompts citizens to file a request for information, to which the county is legally required to respond. In the midst of a crisis, capturing, storing and managing the high volume of social media records generated isn’t feasible without an automated system. When new comments are coming in multiple times a minute, capturing the exchange manually is not a viable option, and relying on the networks to have all the data is a risky proposition, particularly as commenters have the ability to delete at will.

For Mishler, the process of setting up automated archiving was simple. “It was as easy as making one phone call and filling out a form,” she says. Within minutes she had received a call from ArchiveSocial and an email with everything needed to set up the system. ArchiveSocial’s automated social media archiving service captured a complete record of all posts on the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page in a searchable, export- ready format.

“It was the only solution we had and I’m glad we had such a positive experience with ArchiveSocial during and after our social media crisis,” says Mishler.

Archiving Brings Peace of Mind
In Mishler’s role as the communications coordinator for Skagit County, she says one of the best benefits of ArchiveSocial is the peace of mind it provides. “If down the road there are any claims filed or any sort of litigation happens where we receive a social media documents request relating to the incident that occurred this past July, we will be able to easily produce them,” she says.

Introducing Crisis Support
ArchiveSocial’s Crisis Support service provides free access to social media monitoring and archiving technology to protect an agency during a communications crisis, such as an incident that threatens public safety or overwhelms social media sites with queries. The cloud-based tool captures data in near real time, including the quality and metadata of the original content.

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