Should communicators who are bound by FOIA avoid Snapchat?

While disappearing communiqués are all the rage among young audiences, public institutions targeting these demographics should heed the letter of the law.

If your organization is governed by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a disappearing message might be a bad idea.

Ephemeral communication—meaning communication lasting for a short time (i.e. Snapchat or Instagram “Stories”)—is becoming more and more common. People, particularly younger demographics, love the idea of sending messages and content that disappears after a day or less. In fact, teenagers prefer Snapchat over Facebook, Instagram and Twitter combined.

If your organization wants teenagers to engage, such as a university perhaps, you might be rushing to sign up for a Snapchat profile if you don’t already have one. However, at least for public institutions, there’s just one pesky problem—FOIA.

All public institutions subject to FOIA are required by law to keep records of all social media activity, including posts, third-party comments, meta data and deleted posts. If that alone is news to you, a perusal of this social media FOIA primer might be in order.

What does this mean for messages designed to exist for—in some cases—a matter of seconds? Unfortunately, there isn’t a definitive answer on this.

While organizations can have a document such as a Word or Excel file with the text and graphics for all their scheduled messages, those documents lack the meta data needed to verify their authenticity. Who’s to say questionable or contentious posts weren’t simply excluded from those documents?

This isn’t to say colleges and universities should avoid Snapchat.

One of the most important rules in PR and marketing is to use the same channels as your audiences, and as previously mentioned, the target demographic for higher education institutions overwhelmingly prefer Snapchat more than anything else. Some colleges are even receiving national attention for their exceptional use of Snapchat.

Here’s the real question to ask: What is your organization’s tolerance for risk of a FOIA request that you can’t fully meet?

For many, the benefits—connecting with prospective students—vastly outweigh the risk, but for others, it’s enough to keep them off the platform until clearer guidance for ephemeral communication and FOIA requests are provided.

How would you operate a Snapchat account for a public institution, PR Daily readers? Would you avoid the platform?

Greg Surber works for the Hodges Partnership and teaches PR writing and media relations at Virginia Commonwealth University. A version of this article originally appeared on the Gong Blog.

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