Ethical Planning & Social Media

by Shelby Sommer, AICP, LEED AP, Ft. Collins, Colorado

Social media has transformed the way many people communicate and interact. As planners, we can now reach and connect with people virtually, a major transformation in our profession. There are so many social media tools at our disposal we need to consider if we are using them ethically as planners and in accordance with the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct.

How are planners using social media?

The social media realm evolves quickly. New sites and tools emerge overnight, gaining popularity and followers before you have even learned to use the last trendy tool. Even social media mainstays like Facebook frequently revamp their functionality and appearance, so the only constant in the social media realm seems to be continual change. 

Despite the fact that the tools always seem to be shifting, there are some common themes in the ways that planners are using social media. They include the following:

  • Broadcasting planning-related news and information
  • Engaging in planning dialogues and discussions
  • Sharing photos, drawings, videos, and other files and media
  • Connecting and networking with the public, colleagues, and clients

Planners in both the public and private sectors are discovering many creative new ways to use social media to advance both planning projects and the profession. Social media is a relatively inexpensive, efficient, and interactive tool that we can use, but we need to pause to consider the ethical challenges and repercussions of our social media behaviors before we dive in and start posting, pinning, and tweeting.

Are you using social media ethically?

There are numerous articles and resources available to teach you how to use social media tools to reach and interact with your desired audience. What seems to be missing is the link between using the tools and understanding our responsibilities in using them within the planning profession. The following questions are intended to help provide a quick assessment or checklist for using social media tools ethically as planners.

Are you replicating the experience for non-users?

Social media should always be considered “one tool in the box,” and never the only method for gathering public feedback. Because some people lack access to computers or the internet, and others may be unfamiliar or uncomfortable with technology or social media tools, it is essential to replicate social media dialogues and opportunities in other formats. This might include in-person meetings and conversations or written responses.

Are you meeting your followers’ expectations?

Your social media followers have made a commitment to following or linking you or your project, and it is important to reciprocate and satisfy their expectations in the virtual world. Social media users expect timely and accurate information. 

For example, in the business world, one or two days may seem acceptable for a response to a citizen request, but in the online world, information travels much quicker and people tend to expect results and feedback within a few hours. In addition, are you posting information at a frequency that works with social media? If you post to your Facebook account once a week, or even once a day, many of your followers may never even see your post due to the barrage of information that they need to sift through each hour.

Do you have a plan in place to monitor and manage results?

Because much of the work that planners do is subject to open meetings and records requirements (often called “Sunshine Laws”), it is imperative to have a plan in place to document results and create offline backups in case a member of the public wants to review your social media records. Sometimes this is as simple as creating a PDF of the posts and responses at regular intervals. More complex monitoring approaches could include creating project-specific hashtags (#) to track posts and/or using social media management services like Hootsuite.

Besides planning how to monitor the results, it is critical to establish policies and protocols for how you will manage the social media tool, prior to using it. Some potential topics to cover in those policies include how to address offensive and/or threatening comments, removing posts and comments, advertising considerations, legal requirements, and removing or blocking followers.

Can you draw the line between personal and professional use?

A final consideration for using social media in the planning profession is whether you can differentiate between personal and professional use. Often, the line between the two can be blurry, especially with networking sites like LinkedIn where you might be mixing your professional contacts and personal relationships.

One general rule of thumb to follow is to treat each post or tweet like an on-the-record interview with a reporter. If you would be uncomfortable having it printed on the front page of a newspaper, it is probably best to avoid posting on your social media accounts. This applies to professional accounts (like a project-specific Facebook page or company Twitter account) and is worth strong consideration for your personal accounts too, even if your accounts are private and non-work related.

Once you post something with your name attached to it, it is very difficult to remove from the Internet. In this digital age, it is always beneficial to play it safe and try to avoid even the appearance of unethical behavior. 

Lead by example

This article is not intended to scare planners away from embracing social media tools. Rather, we should embrace them enthusiastically yet carefully, due to their seemingly limitless abilities to advance our profession by connecting planners with the public as well as with each other. We have the opportunity to serve as ambassadors of good social media behavior, and need to act and use these tools responsibly and ethically if we expect the public to do the same. By being deliberate and thoughtful about our social media presence and behaviors, we can transform virtual networks and dialogues into positive change in the communities where we work.

Shelby Sommer, AICP, LEED AP is an associate at Clarion Associates LLC. She is a planner with over six years of professional experience and has been involved with a variety of planning projects, from neighborhood plans to community-wide master plans. She has presented on social media and ethics during the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute.

Related AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct
Aspirational Principles (abbreviated)

  • 1D – Provide timely, adequate, clear and accurate information on planning issues to all affected persons
  • and to governmental decision-makers.        
  • 3A – Protect and enhance the integrity of our profession.        
  • 3B – Educate the public about planning issues and their relevance to our everyday lives.
  • 1E – Give people the opportunity to have a meaningful impact on the development and plans and programs that may affect them. Participation should be broad enough to include those who lack  formal organization or influence.        
  • 3C – Describe and comment on the work and views of other professionals in a fair and
  • professional manner.

Related AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct Rules of Conduct (abbreviated)

  • 1 – Do not deliberately, or with reckless indifference, fail to provide adequate, timely, clear and accurate information on planning issues.
  • 7 –Maintain confidentiality of client information except when required by process of law, to prevent a clear violation of law, or to prevent a substantial injury to the public..
  • 8 – Do not, as public officials or employees, engage in private communications with planning process participants regarding matters over which we have authority to make a binding, final determination if prohibited by law, agency rules, procedures or custom.
  • 9 – Do not engage in private discussions with decision makers in any manner prohibited by law, agency rules, procedures, or custom.
  • 12 – Do not misstate facts relevant to our professional qualifications.
  • 19 – Do not fail to disclose (nor participate in an effort to conceal) the interests of our client or employer when participating in the planning process.
  • 20 – Do not unlawfully discriminate against another person.

Types of Social Media Tools Often used in Planning (adapted from

  • Social Network: A site that connects people and allows for sharing and dialogue (e.g., Facebook, Myspace, LinkedIn)
  • Blog: Easy to update website for an author to share content in a diary-like format (e.g., Wordpress)
  • Microblog: Service for sharing short blog posts (e.g, Twitter)
  • Discussion Forum: Places for online users to discuss topics of common interest (e.g., MindMixer)
  • Photo Sharing: Service to organize and share images, often coupled with other social media tools  (e.g, Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest)
  • Video: Service to share and comment on live or pre-recorded videos (e.g., YouTube)

Social Media Resources

Published in February/March 2014 Issue

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