FOIA in the Age of Ephemeral Communication (Snapchat and Instagram Stories)

“’Cause we are living in an ephemeral world, and I am an ephemeral…”

OK, maybe we stop there.

But in all seriousness, ephemeral communication – meaning communication lasting for a short time (e.g., Snapchat, 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 you’re a brand targeting teenagers, such as a university perhaps, you might be rushing to sign up for a Snapchat profile if you don’t already have one. But at least for public institutions, there’s just one pesky problem – FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act).

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, I suggest you skip over to our previous social media FOIA post for a primer.

But where that does that leave 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 were 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.

Greg Surber

Greg Surber, APR, is a public relations strategist through and through. He works on a variety of accounts, leading research projects and content strategies, but he also has extensive experience with more traditional PR efforts including national and trade media relations campaigns.

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