Like many institutional Twitter accounts, Journal Register Co. newsroom accounts need to be more engaging and conversational.
We tweet a lot of links to our content. But we’re not very personable. In the coming months, I will be working with JRC colleagues to strengthen engagement on newsroom Twitter accounts. I’ll start by sharing some best practices here. I’ll blog later about using Facebook. I’ve already shared some advice for individual journalists using Twitter. Today I focus on branded newsroom accounts (whether that’s the lead newsroom account or a niche account focusing on a topic such as sports or a beat).
The specific practices start with some guiding principles in use of social media: Use good sense. Practice good journalism. Be creative, aggressive, accurate and ethical.
I should note that much of my advice comes from watching, talking with, teaching with and reading my former TBD colleague, Mandy Jenkins. Mandy’s deft handling of our @TBD account is my model of an effective, engaged branded account. I will quote directly from (and probably will echo without realizing) three blog posts where Mandy addressed management of a newsroom Twitter account:
- Channeling the news brand: persona and strategy
- Channeling the news brand on Twitter and Facebook
- Interacting with the audience as a brand
Some tips for managing an engaging newsroom Twitter account:
Don’t just spew headlines and links. Lead and join the conversation about news, events and issues in your community.
Being conversational starts with having a voice and a personality. Maybe the best example of this is @ColonelTribune, the Chicago Tribune character created by Daniel Honigman. Discuss in your newsroom what this voice and personality will be, because you probably want to have multiple people tweeting from the account and you want them to maintain a similar voice and personality.
Mandy describes the voice she presented as @TBD:
The brand persona is that of a conversational, young, urban-dweller who is in the know but isn’t a know-it-all. The tone is casual, straight-forward, occasionally snarky or sarcastic, but only in the context of funny or feature news. He/she is sort of geeky, curious and enthusiastic to receive and share info.
That may not be the voice you want for a newsroom account, but you should strive for something more conversational than the monotone stream of headlines and links you get from many branded news accounts. I’m not saying you don’t tweet about the news and share some links. But tweet conversationally. If the story is fun, have some fun with it. If it deals with something controversial, ask what people think. If it’s about an upcoming event, ask if people are going. Even if you play it straight, which is appropriate with lots of serious news stories, Twitter’s 140-character limit lets you write something more conversational than a headline. (Journalists whine about that limit, but it’s actually substantially more than most headlines.)
Consider whether you can tweet links in the second person (sometimes you can’t), asking, “Has this has ever happened to you?” or “Have you ever wondered” why the city does this or doesn’t do that. Don’t overdo this, but when it’s appropriate, second person is conversational and engaging. Even though you’re tweeting a link to one of your stories or videos, you’re not making it all about you.
Take other steps to make sure the Twitter stream isn’t all about you. When people praise one of your stories or tweets, thank them. (You should closely monitor your mentions, with a separate column in HootSuite or TweetDeck or just frequently clicking the “mentions” option on Twitter.com.) If someone asks a question, answer it.
If someone criticizes your organization or one of your stories, engage them. You can ask what specifically they didn’t like (the tweet may not give much information). You can ask whether you got any facts wrong. You can promise to pass the criticism along to the reporter. If the critic is pointing out something you missed, you can say thanks for the tip and you’ll look into it. You can simply say thanks for the feedback.
Running arguments, especially with trolls, aren’t productive. But engaging with earnest critics is almost always a good idea. You don’t have to engage publicly. You can direct-message the critic (be sure to follow the critic if you don’t already, so he or she can reply by DM). Or, if you reply, starting your tweet with an @ symbol and the tweep’s username, the only people who will see your response in their Twitter stream will be those who follow both you and the critic.
If you want to share a comment or question with your audience, retweet it, answering the question or possibly adding your own comment. Retweets are also a good way to repeat a link that some might have missed the first time. If someone posts your link with a question or comment, your retweet, even if the comment is just “thanks,” will draw the link to some people’s attention for the first time without seeming like annoying repetition to people who saw it the first time.
The conversation doesn’t have to be simply about your stories. If someone in the community tweets something interesting about news or issues in the community, reply or retweet. Join the conversation that’s already going on. If a blogger in your network or someone else in the community — even the competition — posts something interesting, comment on that and link to it.
Don’t always look back on what you’ve already published. Crowdsource stories that you’re working on, asking people if they have any experience with a particular problem or situation a staff member is reporting on. Ask people about their plans for upcoming events and holidays. Find new approaches to routine stories by brainstorming with your tweeps.
I hear from some editors that when they try to crowdsource, people respond by telling them to do their own jobs. Invariably, these are editors whose newsroom Twitter feeds are one-way: Read us, read us, read us, read us, help us. It’s all about us. If you engage in a multi-directional conversation and show interest beyond your own stories, people will be much more interested in helping you when you ask for help. And don’t crowdsource in a help-us tone. Invite people to tell their stories.
Some great advice from Mandy:
If someone sends a good news tip via Twitter, Facebook or by email, ask them follow-up questions (if necessary) and be sure to publicly acknowledge their contribution. You may want to re-tweet the tip once you have verified it.
Be personable on Twitter. If something funny or interesting happens in the newsroom, share that with your tweeps. If you’re having cake for someone’s birthday or farewell party, tweet a photo and best wishes.
The more personable and conversational you are, the more the public is going to want to engage with you.
Follow people in your community
Take a few minutes each day to search for new people in your community to follow. They won’t all follow you, but many of them will. You grow your circle in a variety of ways.
- In Advanced Twitter Search, you can look for tweets near a particular place (you used to be able to adjust the radius, but now you can just choose “near”). Check for people tweeting near your community and follow the ones your aren’t already following. You can also use NearbyTweets to find people tweeting in your community.
- When new people follow you, check to see if they are in your community or are tweeting about your community. Follow them back (and you might want to organize them into a list according to their interests — local sports fans, local officials, local parents, etc.). Check the first page or two of people they follow to see if you can identify some new people from your community to follow. Check some of the people they are replying to or retweeting to see if they are local.
- If a local hashtag develops, check to make sure you’re following the people using it.
- Do occasional searches for local sports teams and community leaders and organizations (these can be Twitter lists or standing columns in HootSuite or TweetDeck) and follow people who are showing interest in local matters.
- As you find new local tweeps to follow, be sure to note whether their profiles include a blog link. This will help build your community blog network.
Tweet breaking news aggressively
Twitter is a great tool for covering breaking news, and presents an opportunity to draw new audience and to stamp your Twitter feed and your website as the go-to place for breaking news.
Mandy’s advice here is great (TBD rocked on breaking news, and Mandy’s Twitter coverage made a huge contribution):
If news is breaking fast, don’t wait for a link to tweet.
BUT Linking is a priority: If you have info to send a lengthy tweet, we have info to quickly copy and paste into a very short post to update later. Missing a link is missing page view opportunities as the news is retweeted. Perhaps more importantly, it also makes it harder for the follower to get more information on the story if they see it on a re-tweet later in the tweetcycle.
Updates: When a breaking news post is updated with notable info, tweet about it again with the new info and include the same link.
I have heard in some JRC newsrooms that people have been told to wait for a link to tweet breaking news. That’s not necessary or advisable. You want to be first with news on Twitter. If one person is handling the breaking story for the web and another is managing the Twitter account, you shouldn’t wait for the story to be posted to tweet. And a reporter in the field who has sent a quick bulletin to an editor to post should not wait for the link to post. If one person is handling both, it’s OK to post a quick tweet-length bulletin, then tweet with the link, then start adding to the bulletin. If you tweet before you have a link, you can say something like “Watch for updates at troyrecord.com.” Then, when you have a link, be sure to include that in your next tweet and frequently thereafter if this is a breaking story where you will be tweeting frequent updates.
The breaking news Twitter approach also shouldn’t be one-way. Ask if anyone saw the incident or is experiencing the traffic tie-ups, power outages or other impact. Start a hashtag or use a hashtag that is already in use.
Accuracy is essential to remember at all times in journalism, and Twitter is no exception. Tweet breaking news developments that you have confirmed and are ready to publish.
I blogged a case study last year about @statesman’s coverage of a big local breaking news story. The case study might provide some good material for a newsroom discussion of how your staff would use Twitter in covering a big story in your community. For a big story, you might do what the Austin American-Statesman did for the Fort Hood shootings and start a dedicated Twitter feed for the heavy stream of tweets (with occasional tweets on the main tweet, posting major developments and promoting the special feed).
Discuss whether your newsroom is ready to try crowdsourcing verification, a new technique that NPR’s Andy Carvin has pioneered. Carvin retweets unconfirmed reports from Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, asking his tweeps to help him confirm or debunk the reports. It’s a practice that feels wrong to the traditional journalist — repeating a rumor you haven’t confirmed — but it’s consistent with (and helps you carry out) the first principle of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics: Seek truth and report it. Check Carvin’s Storify account for detailed curation of some stories he pursued using these techniques.
Use Twitter in conjunction with other social tools and traditional reporting techniques. As I noted earlier, Google+ was helpful (along with Twitter, Facebook and other tools) in the Trentonian’s coverage of a recent shooting at an apartment building.
You will make mistakes on Twitter, just as journalists make errors in print and every other medium. Correct them quickly and transparently. Discuss whether you should delete erroneous tweets or simply issue quick corrections. I don’t advise deleting tweets, except the most egregious tweets that might damage someone’s reputation. You can’t recall print products once they’ve been delivered either. In addition to correcting a tweet, you should check to see if anyone has retweeted (or later retweets) the erroneous tweet and tweet at those people, noting the correction and asking them to retweet the correction, too. Don’t just check your mentions here: Search for the link you tweeted, in case someone passed that along without crediting you. I wish Twitter allowed editing of tweets to correct errors.
Hashtags help people who aren’t following your account find your tweets (and click on related links) and decide whether they should follow you. They help organize tweets on a single topic. To use a hashtag, just place # in front of a word — or phrase with no spaces — such as #JRC organizes tweets about the Journal Register Co. or #jrcchat for our weekly Journal Register Twitter chat.
Don’t litter your tweets with too many hashtags, but consider some regular tags for breaking news in your community as well as some special ones for events or continuing stories. NewsOK.com uses #okstorm for bad weather in Oklahoma, and many Oklahomans on Twitter have started using it, regardless of whether they read NewsOK or the Oklahoman. You can adopt a hashtag someone else has started or launch your own.
Tweet when people are reading
The best time to tweet a link to a story is immediately when it’s posted to your website. That should suffice when you post during the workday, though it’s also a good idea to tweet again as you update stories. But when you post stories in the evening — meetings, sports events, stories that break at night — you should tweet them again in the morning. I see too many newsroom Twitter accounts tweeting multiple news stories at 5 or 6 a.m., as if tweets had to be on the front step early in the morning, just like the newspaper. It’s probably a good idea to schedule a tweet or two for the early risers. But most reading of news websites comes during the workday, so save most of your repeats of tweets from last night for 9 a.m. or so. It’s also good to space the tweets by 15 minutes or so, rather that dumping them all into the stream at once.
Credit, attribute and thank
Social media have a strong ethic of attribution (that’s what retweeting is all about). Be sure to credit and thank those who help you out. Again from Mandy:
Treat those supplying you with information as a respected friend – and they just might end up becoming regular tipsters and brand evangelists. If you get a news tip, photo or other info you’d like to use from your followers, be sure to thank and/or credit the user by name in social media messages and the story itself. Credit them on Twitter with (h/t @theirname) or similar when the link is shared. If you use a photo, make sure they are credited in the cutline.
Promote Twitter accounts
We need to do more to promote staff members on Twitter as well as the main newsroom accounts:
- Include usernames with bylines in the newspaper.
- Include staff members’ Twitter links with their stories on the website.
- “About us” and “Contact us” pages should include links to a Twitter directory where people can find and follow staff members on Twitter.
- Your newsroom Twitter account should be promoted prominently on your home page.
- Include staff members’ usernames in tweets promoting their content. (I added this Oct. 13.)
Plan a thoughtful profile
Use an appropriate avatar. A logo works well. @MercuryX, Twitter feed of The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa., has a nice one. Initials also work, as the Morning Journal (Lorain, Ohio) and Register Citizen (Torrington, Conn.) use. I am a little conflicted about the use of images of the print newspaper (as The Reporter does in Lansdale, Pa.). The newspaper brand has some value and name recognition in the community, but for a digital-first company, a print visual may not be the ideal avatar. However, for @thepinksheet, the racing publication of the Saratogian, the print visual seems to work. Since I don’t live in Saratoga Springs, I can’t say how much of a local landmark the Saratogian offices might be. If people recognize your building instantly, that might make the right avatar.
I am troubled by the frequent identification in Twitter bios of our news organizations as newspapers. We are a digital-first company (or at least on a digital-first path) and we should stop identifying ourselves by the legacy platform. Most of our names scream “newspaper” anyway. Is it better to identify your Twitter feed simply as the source for news in your community? If you want to mention platforms, promote your multi-platform nature, from print to text messages (may not need to mention the website, since you use the link in the profile).
Sometimes a branded niche account, such as a beat account, is operated by a particular staff member. In those cases, it’s a good idea to name the staff member and/or use his or her photo as the avatar. (If someone else operates the account on a vacation, he or she should note the change in a tweet, but there’s no need to change the profile).
This is advice, not rules
Please don’t call these rules. JRC CEO John Paton has already spelled out our company’s social media rules. As the Pirates of the Caribbean say, these are more like guidelines. I want to encourage journalists using Twitter as individuals or on newsroom accounts to be conversational, ethical, creative and aggressive in your use of Twitter. These are some of my tips for achieving that. I welcome your tips as well (and, of course, I will tweet about them), whether I agree with them or not.
For more advice on this topic, check out my earlier post, How do you build local engagement on Twitter. Other recent posts that might help addressed why editors should be active on Twitter and best practices for newsroom leaders using social media.