When should journalists use their personal social media accounts and when should they use the branded newsroom accounts?
An editor raised those issues in an email (edited lightly to avoid identification, because I welcome private requests for help, even though I sometimes address the issues publicly):
Some of my staff members — copy editors who also do reporting — have been finding that crowdsourcing on our newsroom’s Facebook and Twitter accounts has been very useful, as would be expected. But, at times, they say, there can be so many reporters and editors doing it that their questions get lost in a sea of posts, all of which are almost always quality. They say they sometimes can have better luck posting crowdsourcing questions to their private Twitter and Facebook accounts, which means their sources have been gravitating toward those accounts and not the official branded accounts.
A concern raised among some editors is that these private accounts don’t give our official sites the hits and exposure they could if the groundwork was done through the official accounts. In addition, the private accounts and all the new followers staffers generate through their work here would go with the staffer should they leave.
It’s hard to find a best practice for how other papers handle this. This harkens back to the day when reporters on the cutting edge of technology initially used their private email accounts before newspapers caught on and got people their own company email account.
Anyway, I hear wisdom on both sides. Just wondering if you had thoughts that you wouldn’t mind sharing. Hope that isn’t asking too much. I read your blog routinely and find it very helpful and interesting.
I see two primary issues here: effective crowdsourcing strategy and control of staff members and their work. I’ll take them in order:
Crowdsourcing strategy: Journalists should crowdsource using both branded and personal accounts. Each approach has some advantages. The branded account generally has a larger audience than the journalist’s personal account, so the crowdsourcing request will reach more people. But, as my emailer noted, sometimes the crowdsourcing request might be lost in the flow of updates from a branded account. Or sometimes maybe the reason a reporter gets a better response on her own account is because she has developed a strong relationship with her social-media community. People often prefer to engage with people, rather than brands.
So my crowdsourcing advice is to use both accounts. Maybe it’s best for the reporter to tweet a crowdsourcing request and then retweet it from the branded Twitter account. You can post a request on the branded Facebook page, then the reporter can share it, adding her own comment.
Control: Newsrooms have always benefited from the relationships of their staff members. A reporter develops excellent sources and the news organization gets scoops and outstanding stories. A reporter who establishes rapport with an interview subject delivers a great story. A columnist develops a strong following among readers. If that columnist or reporter moves to another job, the relationships don’t transfer automatically to the next reporter or columnist. The relationship was with the person, not the brand. The brand benefited from that relationship while it employed the reporter or columnist, but it could not claim that benefit forever.
Sometimes the next reporter or columnist quickly establishes a similar relationship. The source wants to be in the paper, and eagerly connects with the new reporter on the beat. Readers enjoy the new columnist and start building a new relationship. Chuck Offenburger was beloved across the state as the Iowa Boy columnist for the Des Moines Register, but his successor, John Carlson, developed his own strong following.
Sometimes the relationship is impossible to match. I’m pretty sure that Register readers haven’t embraced subsequent opinion-page columnists the way they loved (and loved to hate) Donald Kaul, who left twice. Whenever Leonard Pitts leaves the Miami Herald or Maureen Dowd leaves the New York Times, those newspapers may lose some of their fans, or at least lose a bit of the loyalty of those fans. That’s always been true at whatever level journalists have developed personal relationships, even the virtual relationships that media personalities can develop with people they will never meet. CBS News lost much of its following when Walter Cronkite retired and lost other fans (though not as many) when Dan Rather and Katie Couric left.
It’s the same with social media. We expect journalists to use their relationships on Twitter and Facebook to benefit the news organization. And let’s be clear: Journalists’ use of social media on their individual accounts has considerable benefit for their news organizations. They connect with sources, monitor breaking news, engage the community and help build the brand through their social relationships. They drive traffic as they tweet links to their work (and the work of colleagues).
When the journalists move along, the newsroom will lose some of those relationships. Pat Caputo, a popular sports writer with the Oakland Press, has more than 10,000 Twitter followers, 2,000-plus more than his newsroom’s branded account. The Press benefits from Caputo’s popularity (like many sportswriters, he also hosts a radio show). But whenever he leaves, it may lose some of his fans — in print, online and in social media.
Employers own the work product of their staffs, and sometimes that leads to disputes as staff members leave. But the employer doesn’t own the relationships. A sales rep might be barred from taking accounts elsewhere through non-compete clauses. But beyond that, it would be hard — and a waste of time and energy — to claim or keep the relationships people develop while working for you.
If you hire good journalists with good social media skills to replace departing journalists, they will build good relationships. You may have a dip in traffic, following or loyalty as you rebuild ground following a popular journalist. But that’s always been true in any medium.
(Tip to reporters taking over a beat: Check out your predecessor’s Twitter followers. Follow those who are from your community, especially if their tweets indicate an interest in your beat. Chances are they will follow you, so you can start building a relationship with them.)
A newsroom that uses a heavy hand to dictate and control staff members’ social media use probably won’t lose a lot of social-media value when they leave. The staff members won’t have the kind of relationships they could develop by being themselves. You’re better off encouraging staff members to develop strong relationships. Treat your best journalists well, so they will want to stick around. And when they move on, hire someone else who is good at building relationship — online and in person.