How To: Craft the Right Social Media Guidelines for Your Newsroom

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Just as most companies have employee codes of conduct and standards, many are now crafting similar codes for employees’ online behavior. These rules are not only for the social media manager about how official newsroom tweets and posts are formulated, but also about how newsroom employees can post in their personal capacity. Coming up with the right strategy for your newsroom isn’t easy, however, and there are many factors to consider.

Are journalists employees or individuals?

The first step in crafting a good social media strategy for your newsroom is determining whether you want your employees to be acting as company spokespeople online or as private citizens. In today’s internet landscape, many publications are finding value in hiring journalists and editors who have developed a personal brand — and thus a sizeable online following — because it allows the publication’s brand to expand and potentially reach a new audience. Others, however, want to present a more unified online message, which means giving employees guidelines on how they can post on their personal accounts.

Having rules that are too stringent could scare off younger or more social employees, while having no rules in place could make newsroom management feel that there’s no way to control how staffers present the organization and its content to their followers. The best strategy involves a moderate approach that allows journalists to maintain their personalities, while still representing the newsroom’s core values and voice.

The New York Times announced their strategy last fall, with a focus on maintaining journalistic objectivity while still allowing reporters to develop their own personalities and followings online, stating: “In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’ journalistic reputation.”

What should journalists not say on social media?

As the Times rules demonstrate, what your journalists say online is important. While their policy allows employees to express themselves fairly freely, it does require that they avoid sharing partisan tweets or bringing up customer service complaints they may have.

The Washington Post has similar rules about what employees can’t say online, including provisions about not disparaging advertisers, vendors or readers on social media — even if their accounts are private.

While rules like those initiated by The Times and The Post may seem prohibitive to some people, they are designed to prevent the appearance of favoritism or bias. When crafting your own rules, you’ll want to find a balance that makes your employees feel comfortable, while also protecting your brand from unwanted or unwarranted criticism.

How should news be delivered?

For major breaking stories and exclusives, your official newsroom accounts should be responsible for going out first with the news. If the tweets or posts link to a developing story on your website, your journalists can follow your posts with their own, but if not, staff should be retweeting the original post so that it’s clear the news comes from your outlet.

On their own accounts, journalists can add commentary or insight about the developing story, but should avoid actually breaking the news themselves. Why? If your journalists are breaking news before you are, followers will have no reason to stick with you and you could see trust and engagement in your own accounts diminish.

When should the news be delivered?

We discussed in an earlier How-To post the frequency with which newsrooms should post to social media, but breaking news doesn’t fit those rules. When a story breaks, it’s okay to throw your schedule out the window and tweet immediately and relatively frequently. The key is to keep your posts fresh (post if there is something new to add) and relevant. You’ll have the chance to get your article in front of people later, so if someone misses your breaking-news tweet, it doesn’t mean they won’t turn to you for the full story later.

How should your employees interact with followers?

The BBC offers great guidance on engaging with followers, which is simple but effective: be polite. It’s sometimes easy to forget that journalists’ personal interactions with the public can impact how people view your publication. These days, it’s often difficult to separate journalists from their outlets, so if one of your employees gets into an argument on Twitter or blocks a user, that will appear as a reflection of your organization, regardless of how fair their actions were.

While it’s acceptable (and even desirable) for journalists to engage in discussions with followers, they should assume that they’re always representing the company or publication. A good rule of thumb is to keep what you say online consistent with things you would say in front of your boss; that should keep things civil and professional, while still enabling staff to express themselves freely.

How should reposts be handled?

When it comes to reposting, treat each post as your own. If your organization wouldn’t write it or share it under its own name, you shouldn’t repost it to the newsroom’s feed. Twitter makes reposting incredibly easy, but when you do so, it’s not always obvious to your followers that you don’t endorse the tweet or that it didn’t originate with you. So, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Assume that anything you share, regardless of attribution, will be viewed as having come from your publication. If you want to share a controversial or questionable post, present it with full context — as in an article. Otherwise, it’s best to keep all reposts out of your feed.

Does your newsroom have social media rules? What are some of your dos and don’ts of social media for your staffers? Let us know by tweeting @newsalliance.


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