Should you respond to critics via Twitter?
What's your social media policy for journalists regarding responding to critical tweets? Or should you even have one? The Washington Post's recent social media contretemps with GLAAD presents publishers with an opportunity to consider the matter seriously.
A brief recap: The Washington Post published a controversial piece in their "On Faith" section by guest contributor Tony Perkins titled "Christian compassion requires the truth about harms of homosexuality." GLAAD responded, critically, on their blog. And that resulted in some back-and-forth on Twitter. It wasn't quite bloodsport, but considering the reputation of the Washington Post it could have been much, much worse.
Should The Washington Post respond to individual readers -- or, for that matter, established organizations like GLAAD -- through social media? It's easy to understand, on the one hand, the reluctance of The Washington Post, a reputable, publicly traded publishing company with everything to lose, to engage in extensive back-and-forth with readers over stories. Further, social media is so unpredictable and, worse, prone to abrupt public backlash, that it is easy to forget the success stories and focus on the unmitigated disasters. Still, we live in a new digital era where the gatekeepers no longer have the luxury of avoiding interactivity with the readers. What is the answer?
Washington Post's managing editor, Raju Narisetti concluded in an internal memo:
Even as we encourage everyone in the newsroom to embrace social media and relevant tools, it is absolutely vital to remember that the purpose of these Post-branded accounts is to use them as a platform to promote news, bring in user-generated content, and increase audience engagement with Post content. No branded Post accounts should be used to answer critics and speak on behalf of the Post, just as you should follow our normal journalistic guidelines in not using your personal social-media accounts to speak on behalf of the Post.
Perhaps it would be useful to think of the issue this way: When we write a story, our readers are free to respond, and we provide them a venue to do so. We sometimes engage them in a private verbal conversation, but once we enter a debate personally through social media, this would be equivalent to allowing a reader to write a letter to the editor — and then publishing a rebuttal by the reporter. It’s something we don’t do.
Nasiretti further added that writers should feel free to flag him, executive editor Marcus Branchuli or managing editor Liz Spayd if somewhere across that vast social media cosmos a critical comment arises that deserves a response from the Post. He added that the Washington Post's communications department would also be handling iffy social media interactions.
Is this just another incident of legacy media not getting the digital age?
Possibly. The memo doesn't answer the question: if Post-branded accounts exist solely to promote news and bring in user-generated content, could journalists use their own personal Twitter accounts to respond to critics? Presumably the answer is yes, but what if those responses result in a flame war that embarasses the publisher?
Anyone who has ever seen the high-pitched rhetorical combat that goes in the gladiatorial fundaments that are also known as the comment sections of some of the more prominent political and media sites can thoroughly sympathize with the dilemma that was set before Narisetti. There should be some standards, some policy regarding journalists representing their organizations on Twitter -- but what? Ultimately, Narisetti decided that writers should not respond to critical comments through Post-branded Twitter accounts. While that seems a safe, web 1.0 decision, it could come back to bite the Washington Post.
Again: What is your social media strategy for journalists, and should you have one?