Social Media Policies: Let’s Talk About What You Should Do

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Social media tools like Twitter and Facebook have been around for several years now, but some media organizations are still just getting around to figuring out how to handle them — and in many cases, as we’ve written before, they spend a lot of time talking about what journalists should not do, and very little about what they should do. Bloomberg is the latest to come out with this kind of social-media policy, which spends most of its time telling staff all the things they should avoid doing.

The Bloomberg policy, which was sent to the Emedia Vitals blog by a source, starts off well enough, by saying that social networks and social-media platforms are “a powerful way to reach millions of new readers and expand the impact of our reporting,” and that social media “is a useful complement to our work so long as principles of fairness, accuracy and transparency are upheld.” So far, so good.

Then, however, the policy goes on to list all the things that reporters and editors with Bloomberg shouldn’t do. Staff “should not use social networks to express political opinions or to advocate on behalf of a particular issue or agenda,” and posts on any network or platform “should never express bias based on race, sex, religion, or nationality.” Reporters and editors “cannot use social media to express opinions related in any way to their professional assignment or beat.” Staff are also forbidden to join any groups or social networks that are dedicated to a particular political opinion or cause, are not allowed to “engage in arguments with those critical of our work,” and are not allowed to mention any internal discussions or meetings.

All of these restrictions and bans are very similar to the ones that the Toronto Star newspaper laid out in its new social-media policy, which I wrote about recently: never discuss stories in development, do not talk about newsroom issues, don’t express any opinions about the topics you cover, and don’t respond to readers.

These kinds of policies have a number of flaws — including the fact that much of what they are prohibiting is either common sense or impossible to police (or both). During a discussion of policies on Twitter on Tuesday, journalism professor Jeff Jarvis echoed a motto tweeted by Katie Rosman of the Wall Street Journal, who said that deputy managing editor Alan Murray told her the best policy was “Don’t be stupid.” And John Paton, CEO of the Journal-Register Co. newspaper chain and architect of its digital-first strategy, posted his own social-media policy recently, which told employees to consider three points — all of which were blank (the implication being that there are no explicit rules).

One of the biggest flaws of most policies is that they spend so much time talking about how bad social media is for the profession, and so little time talking about what makes it useful, or how to approach it as a positive tool for journalism. About the only positive thing that both the Bloomberg policy and the Toronto Star policy are willing to admit to is that social media such as Twitter and Facebook are really good for promoting your content (although Bloomberg does mention that it’s “good etiquette” to occasionally link to interesting work created by others, which is more than many policies do).

But social tools are good for so much more than just promoting content — not to mention that if all a journalist does is promote his or her content, people will quickly determine that their account is just self-promotional spam, and pay little attention. So what would a positive social-media policy recommend? Here are a few suggestions that I’ve come up with — feel free to add your own in the comments:

  • Talk to people: this has nothing to do with promoting your own content. It means engaging in conversation about issues, and responding to and/or asking questions of others. It’s called a conversational medium for a reason. Unfortunately, most media outlets explicitly forbid this.
  • Reply when you are spoken to: if you don’t respond when someone asks you a direct question or makes a point in reference to you, it’s like ignoring someone who is standing right beside you and talking to you. That doesn’t mean responding to every troll or flame.
  • Re-tweet others: social media gets very boring if all you do is post links to your own things, or post your own thoughts. Lots of other people have interesting things to say — find some and re-tweet them. Maybe they will return the favor.
  • Link to others: the same goes for links — social media is a tremendous tool for finding interesting content, and you should share it when you find it, not just keep it to yourself. If you do this, others are more likely to share your links when you post them.
  • Admit when you are wrong: this is difficult for many journalists, since we like to pretend that we never get anything wrong — which everyone knows is untrue. So be transparent, as much as it pains you, and admit when you got something wrong. It builds trust.
  • Be human, but not too human: it’s okay to show emotion — in fact, it’s good, because it shows that you are human, and people relate to other people. It’s called social media for a reason. But be the best version of yourself — and don’t ever tweet drunk :-)

Those are just some of the principles that make social media what it is, but I have yet to see a social-media policy — apart from possibly the blogging and commenting guidelines at The Guardian — that focuses on this kind of behavior, instead of spending all its time talking about what could go wrong, or telling reporters and editors things they shouldn’t do.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Rosaura Ochoa

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