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‚Äôs 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.