From Washington to Florida, local governments are using social media tools like Facebook and Twitter to serve and engage the public. To minimize problems, including legal ones, and maximize effectiveness, they are creating social media policies and procedures to guide employees and elected officials in posting appropriately.

Social media’s benefits are tremendous, but so are the potential land mines, especially when the two-way conversation involves a government entity, says Paul Rubell, a New York-based social media law expert. Privacy and freedom of speech concerns, records retention, managing public comment, employee access and use, information retrieval, and similar issues all come into play with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, mobile applications and other social media tools. “It’s wonderful,” he says. “But nothing wonderful comes without pitfalls and risks.”

To avoid potential problems, many counties are writing social media policies to manage content and coordinate its use among departments, says Jim Philipps, a spokesperson for the Washington-based National Association of Counties. San Mateo County, Calif., requires that both the county manager and legal counsel pre-approve all social media use. Its social media policy also includes suggested language, sets terms and conditions, and clarifies department and employee access.

Sometimes, though, local governments run into trouble when they try to ride herd over social media. That is what happened in Memphis, Tenn., this year after officials issued guidelines for employees’ social media use both on and off the job. City council members and others complained that the guidelines went too far and violated employees’ freedom of speech. City officials tweaked the policy to make “minor” word changes, according to Quintin Robinson, the city’s human resources director.

While avoiding legal problems, local governments also want to ensure that their use of social media is effective and efficient for those posting messages and for residents who receive them. “A big question is, ‘What are we going to use these tools for?’” says Greg Minchak, spokesman for the Washington-based National League of Cities. “It’s not just about policy, but creating a social media strategy.”

Fairfax County, Va.’s social media guidelines emphasize quality. Any employee or department looking to post information must make sure it is relevant, timely and actionable by the public. “Updates must be good and really strong,” says Greg Licamele, Fairfax County spokesman. “If we just post every little thing that we do, we’re not providing value, we’re providing noise.”

Some local governments dove into social media quickly, others moved slowly and some have yet to get started, says Todd McGee, first vice-president for the National Association of County Information Officers. “What we’re seeing now is a lot more are getting into the game, but they are proceeding cautiously,” he says.  “They are concerned that they do it right.”

S.A. Reid is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.