The Times of India’s new social-media policy completely misses the point, and therefore will fail

Puppet

Many journalists both in India and elsewhere are up in arms about a newly released social-media policy for reporters and editors who work at the Times of India, one of that country’s largest newspaper companies. As Quartz reported earlier this week, the Times came out with a policy that places some Draconian restrictions on what journalists who work there can and can’t do with their social-media accounts. Is it the worst such policy in the entire newspaper industry? That’s entirely possible, but one thing is for sure: it’s bad not because it tries to regulate the use of social media, but because it misses the point behind using such tools in the first place.

The policy as reported by Quartz required reporters for the Times to have a corporate account on Twitter and Facebook — an account through which they would post or distribute links to their articles, and updates related to their coverage areas or beats. According to the version that Quartz posted, news updates and related discussion could only take place through these accounts, not on any personal accounts. The company also said it would own and control these corporate accounts, and would be able to login and post things without the journalist’s permission — and would continue to control them after the journalist left the Times.

Company-controlled accounts

Since the Quartz piece first appeared, the company that owns the Times has released an updated version of the policy, which includes some changes and revisions — apparently introduced after some of its journalists refused to agree to the new rules. Now, the policy allows reporters to post and comment about the news on their personal accounts, but only by retweeting or linking to posts made by their official corporate accounts (Medianama has more detail on the revisions).

The posts made by you on User Account shall contain news and other related material and may also contain any personal material and interaction, which we encourage. You shall inform the company about your personal user accounts and the same will be allowed by the company, subject to you refraining from posting any news and other related material on the same.

Not surprisingly, a lot of journalists have reacted with outrage to the Times‘ proposed rules, primarily because of the newspaper’s attempt to control what should be a personal medium. That attempt to exercise control isn’t unique to the Times — media outlets of various kinds have been trying to somehow control social media since it was invented, because they are afraid that something bad might happen, or they are afraid of their journalists developing their own personal brands and then taking them with them when they leave, or both. Just recently, The Hindu ordered its journalists not to tweet links to competing publications, and other outlets have tried to implement similar restrictions.

Journalist

The ironic thing about such attempts to control the social-media behavior of journalists is that every move to lock them down or bottle them up makes them less effective in doing what the media outlet wants them to do in the first place, which is to help build a strong relationship with an audience of engaged and loyal readers. Experience has shown that the best way to do that is to allow reporters to be as human and conversational — and yes, in some cases flawed and error-prone — as possible. Contrary to what most media entities seem to believe, this makes their reporters more trust-worthy rather than less.

The more control, the less successful it will be

Controlling a corporate account that is directed to only tweet certain things — presumably in an attempt to drive traffic — is likely to be a painful exercise in futility. It’s like introducing a puppet whose strings are being pulled by a group of executives in a boardroom, and then expecting people to warm up to it and eventually invite it in for tea. It’s just not going to happen.

Is allowing journalists to post links to competitors, or talk about irrelevant personal matters, or make inappropriate jokes on their social-media accounts a better strategy? Believe it or not, yes. People form relationships with other people, not with faceless media brands or automated RSS feeds of news links. The Wall Street Journal and a number of other outlets, including the New York Times, found that when they converted their automated Twitter account to one that was run by human beings, engagement levels soared.

Is there a risk that journalists will misbehave or take their Twitter following with them when they leave? Of course there is. But that’s the risk you have to be prepared to take if you want social-media to have any kind of positive impact on your business. The more you try to control it, the less effective it becomes.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Sergey Nivens and Thinkstock / triloks

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