Fear and Social Media Don’t Mix

MUD day 19:

A friend of mine who works for a large nonprofit institution serves on a panel that’s trying to decide what the institution should think and do about social media. Should it encourage its employees and other stakeholders to use social media? Should it restrict what they say and do there? Or should it stay strictly hands off, neither aiding nor impeding social media activities?

Journal Register Company's Rules for Social Media

Cynics might argue that institutions inherently distrust anything they can’t control. But their challenge in dealing with social media has more to do with the culture of caution and conservatism that every traditional organization seems to engender. It’s one of the key reasons why the AP repeatedly feels the need to crack down on the way its staff use Twitter, and why Georgia Tech recently decided that federal privacy rules require it to ban classroom wikis.

I suspect most institutions wouldn’t much appreciate John Paton’s three employee rules for using social media. A little too, shall we say, vague. But I do think they would be well served by the slightly more detailed rules Dan Gillmor proposes for news organizations:

  1. Be human.
  2. Be honorable.
  3. Don’t embarrass us.

I can already hear the objections. But my point would be this: If you fear what your employees are going to do on social media, what you really fear is their humanity. Have courage. Fear and social media don’t mix.

Be Yourself. Just Not Your Real Self: Scripps’ Muddled Social Media Policy

If you need any confirmation that legacy publishers just don’t get social media, give the new social media policy from E.W. Scripps a glance. As summarized by Jay Rosen, the message Scripps is sending to its employees is

“Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Got it? Good! Now go out there and kick some social media ass.”

Nowhere is Scripps’ muddled thinking more evident than in the fuzzy and constantly shifting distinctions the policy makes between personal Twitter accounts and what it calls “professional” accounts. In effect, it drains the life out of both.

It’s reasonable for a company to say, “Look, if you tweet using one of our corporate or branded Twitter accounts, remember you’re speaking for us too.” But Scripps talks not about corporate or branded accounts, but about professional ones. Why? I’d guess because they want to have it both ways. They want their employees to be personal and authentic on Twitter—just not too personal or authentic.

What that means, of course, is they have to limit what their staff can think of as “personal” on their personal Twitter accounts. You can only talk about your “personal life” with “friends or others with similar interests that aren’t work related.” If you’re a sports writer, no problem, right? Your friends never want to talk about sports.

And if you happen to tweet on your personal account about something Scripps deems to be work-related, they “own the right to that work product.” So if you’re a lifestyle columnist who writes in a Scripps paper about your family, guess what? Mention your kids on your personal account and Scripps owns them.

The distinctions Scripps wants to draw get even more muddled when the policy gets into best practices. Be professional, it urges, then immediately adds that “the Internet has blurred the line between public and private, personal and professional.” But never mind that, you must always appear “reasoned, professional, and knowledgeable.” I.e., a stiff.

But then the policy advises, “make it a conversation.” You need to “be real and personable,” and to “bring in your own personality.” In other words, be yourself—just not your real self.

What Scripps doesn’t get is that you can’t have it both ways. Yes, the online world has toppled the barriers between personal and professional. If you don’t like it, you only have one choice: stay offline.