Blog Post

Why Social Media Policies Don't Work

Maybe Thomson Reuters (s tri) was feeling nostalgic about the flurry of negative attention that both the New York Times (s nyt) and the Washington Post (s wpo) got last year when they came out with policies on the use of social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook. For whatever reason, the wire service recently issued new guidelines for its staff, and they suffer from many of the same problems that both the NYT and WaPo policies did. All of these flaws boil down to one thing: A desire to control something that fundamentally can’t be controlled, and a fear of what happens when that control is lost. Without even bothering to enumerate the positive aspects of social media use, the policy starts in with the warnings right away:

We want to encourage you to use social media approaches in your journalism but we also need to make sure that you are fully aware of the risks — especially those that threaten our hard-earned reputation for independence and freedom from bias or our brand.

The risks, of course, are everywhere — someone might say something embarrassing, or post a tweet that others could twist to disparage Reuters:

The advent of social media does not change your relationship with the company that employs you — do not use social media to embarrass or disparage Thomson Reuters. Our company’s brands are important; so, too, is your personal brand. Think carefully about how what you do reflects upon you as a professional and upon us as an employer of professionals.

The overwhelming message is that, while social media is great and useful for many things (although none of those things are ever mentioned), it is a minefield of potential dangers and even a potential threat to the company’s traditional media business:

We’re in a competitive business and while the spirit of social media is collaborative we need to take care not to undermine the commercial basis of our company.

The policy says that “where practical, you should ask someone to check content of Twitter posts,” even as it admits that this is frequently impossible, and warns that supervisors will be monitoring those tweets to see if they cross any lines. It even says that “when using Twitter or social media in a professional capacity, you should aim to be personable but not to include irrelevant material about your personal life.” Why not? No reason is given, but the obvious implication is that it’s “unprofessional” or might “damage the brand.”

I happen to think the opposite is true (within reason, of course). I enjoy it when journalists I know — like Reuters reporter @bobbymacreports, for example — post things that indicate they are human beings. And I don’t think any less of a media brand when one of its employees posts something that turns out not to be true, because I know that they are doing their best, and will correct what needs to be corrected.

Right at the end of the new policy, Reuters says something that cuts to the heart of all the difficulties with social media guidelines. The policy baldly states: “Don’t scoop the wire.” So I mentioned on Twitter that Reuters’ own editor-in-chief, David Schlesinger, did exactly that when he was tweeting from Davos last year and posting about a number of newsworthy events. Schlesinger then responded that “some stuff belongs on the wire first. some stuff belongs on tweets. some stuff you can’t always tell immediately.”

That phrase could just as easily be applied to all of the other potential negative outcomes that Reuters is trying to avoid with its policy. Some things are bad to say on Twitter, and some things are not — and some stuff you can’t always tell immediately. Obviously, you probably shouldn’t chew out a source publicly on Twitter using abusive language. But that’s a little like putting a warning sign on a chainsaw saying “Do not stop chain with hand.” If your employees need to be told that kind of thing, they are probably too stupid to be on your payroll and should be sent to work for your competitors instead.

If you trust your writers and editors, whom you presumably hired and continue to employ because they are smart and capable, then let them use social media for what it was meant for: engaging with readers in as many ways as possible. Don’t get consumed with fear about a loss of control over them — embrace it.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user LunaDiRimmel.

13 Responses to “Why Social Media Policies Don't Work”

  1. Jacquie Bond

    At first, social media had seemed like a huge time sink, and a lot of that was on the company dime. We changed our tune after we stopped trying to fight it and we embraced it. You are correct, there is no fighting it, you have to analyze on how it can work for you. Our business has increased since we embraced it and started utilizing it. Sites like have proven to be a great value in networking for new clients.

  2. I’m a consultant working with Palo Alto Networks; they have an excellent whitepaper on the subject of blocking social networking apps that you may have to worry about, “To Block or Not. Is that the question?” here: It has lots of insightful and useful information about identifying and controlling Enterprise 2.0 apps (Facebook, Twitter, Skype, etc.) Let me know what you think.

  3. I guess they were soemwhat doing the right thing in proceeding with caution at first but now that the flood gates have opened with Twitter they don’t really have a choice but to revisit those guideleines bu tthey have ot do in in a way which still respects and trust the employees

  4. I agree with the argument that the social media policy of Thomson Reuters is weak and insubstantial. However, the headline: “Why Social Media Policies Don’t Work” is a sweeping generalization, which ironically, isn’t addressed in the article, in the same way Thomson Reuters don’t address the positives of social media.

    • That’s a fair point, Wayne — it is a sweeping generalization. My point was that social-media policies like the ones Reuters is trying to impose not only don’t work but can’t work, because they seek to control that which can’t be (and arguably shouldn’t be) controlled.

  5. Good article, and while I get your point, I think there’s one thing missing from your analysis–that you’re a sophisticated, critical-thinking consumer who understands the difference between a company and a person who works for a company. Remember, most newspapers are written on a (if I remember correctly) fourth-grade reading level. That fact alone indicates to me that most news consumers will be less likely to understand differences like those mentioned above…that make sense?

  6. I like Thomson Reuters corporate values – things like integrity, and fairness and trust. Like all news and information old media they will need to adapt to the new new media and at least they are starting to take this journey. There is still a lot of learning for enterprises to do about how to engage directly with people outside their organisation boundary. And for complex acquisitive organisations it is just as difficult to foster internal social communication. I suppose I am saying that at least they have a policy and do not have their heads in the sand.

  7. I think it just depends on who your audience is, as with everything else.

    And in light of the Vodafone scandal, it’s no wonder companies and news agencies are setting limitations and regulations on how their employees are using Social Networking sites to engage their users.

    Check out my blog to for more info on how businesses can use Social Media to optimize revenue.