How Much Should You Police Your Employees’ Social Habits?

Does a too loosey-goosey social media policy threaten the brand? That seems to be the stance The New York Times is taking with its newly hardened guidelines. You may consider following suit in this politically charged age, but don't kill what's good about using social media in the process.

The Gray Lady is taking a new stance on social media, and it’s a situation that’s bound to sound familiar to a lot of organizations.

Last week, The New York Times announced it would be taking an aggressive approach to how it regulated social media for its employees, with the goal of encouraging high standards for its many staffers, who, quite often, have built massive audiences for themselves on social outlets like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or other places.

But the problem is that managing those individual personalities can be quite a headache—especially as they’re considered representatives of the organization. The Times‘ expanded social media strategy is targeted at individual employees, setting a rules of the road for their general conduct.

“We believe that to remain the world’s best news organization, we have to maintain a vibrant presence on social media,” wrote Executive Editor Dean Baquet. “But we also need to make sure that we are engaging responsibly on social media, in line with the values of our newsroom.”

The policy is quite stringent, emphasizing a need to stay objective on the wide variety of issues that the paper covers, recommending that reporters avoid responding to criticism of their work, and counting even social media posts on outlets that might generally be considered private (like Snapchat or a personal Facebook page) to be fair game for the policy. Heck, the Times doesn’t even want its reporters to complain about a bad customer service experience on social media, out of concern they might get preferential treatment.

Now, I’ve covered issues like this before—last fall, for example, when the NFL faced criticism after it decided to aggressively control how its teams shared video related to its games—but this feels like it hits closer to home. In part, because we’re all on social media, both as individuals and organizationally.

(And I will concede that other media outlets have similar rules for social media, most notably NPR.)

Given the current political and cultural climate we’re in—a lot of divisive stuff has happened in the last three weeks, let alone the last year—it might just feel a bit like we have to have these rules, considering the concerns we might have about conduct with our members. And protecting the larger organizational brand is certainly a fair concern.

How Far Is Too Far?

But, on the other hand, the policy must come from a place that understands the medium as well as that freedom and leeway are important parts of what makes that medium work. And some media observers (such as some of the many tweets featured in this Nieman Lab post) have suggested this might be where the Times policy falls short.

Fast Company reporter Cale Guthrie Weissman, who didn’t lose sight of the fact that Baquet has barely even tweeted, raised the concern that the policy could threaten some of its social media success stories:

What’s more, people turn to the Times because of its personalities. There are a number of journalists–Maggie Haberman, Mike Isaac, Farhad Manjoo–who have acquired dedicated audiences because of their frequent and unorthodox social media practices. Platforms like Twitter have made it possible for writers to become personal brands, and if Haberman left the Times today, readers would sure as hell read her stuff at wherever she goes next. Baquet’s new plan would basically throttle these personalities for doing what they’re paid to do.

And others, like Splinter‘s David Uberti, suggested that the heavy lean on objectivity “reads less like a covenant with readers who view the paper as a trustworthy news source than a response to bad-faith critics who never will.” (In other words, folks who think the Times is too liberal won’t be dissuaded by the rules.)

A Useful Reflection

Whatever the case, it’s worth pointing out that media organizations offer a great mirror for reflecting upon your organization’s own approach to social media. They’re usually first on a lot of these issues—they’ll hop on a new network just to scope it out long before anyone else. And they see it all—the good, the bad, the ugly, and the uglier.

But even they struggle with this stuff. The Times is perhaps the country’s most prominent news organization, and it’s a tough balancing act, between what the individual can do and what’s best for the organization as a whole. I think every organization is stuck dealing with that, really.

There was one particularly good thing that the Times did when implementing its policy. It asked its most active employees in the medium how they use it, including the aforementioned Maggie Haberman, who has a pretty good quote in the thing: “Before you post, ask yourself: Is this something that needs to be said, is it something that needs to be said by you, and is it something that needs to be said by you right now? If you answer no to any of the three, it’s best not to rush ahead.”

That, I think, is something a lot of folks can live with in a professional context. Personal? Perhaps not.

If I were writing the rules, I’d say let your humans be humans, but tell them to use their heads. But your organization knows best. Find your balance.

(Nastco/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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