Sunday, February 21, 2010

Journalists' voices louder with every little tweet

Journalists are used to operating behind the scenes. Let's face it: We document life's excitement, drama, tragedy and comedy, all the while leaving our perspectives out of it, save for a byline. We confine our own opinions to our cubical mates, our editors and our families.

For this reason, I have struggled with the concept of humanizing myself through social media branding. More than a year ago, I began tweeting for The Naperville Sun in a robotic fashion, merely blasting out headlines a few times a day. I quickly realized that while it is a thin line to walk, social media allows journalist moderators to let their sense of humor shine, and provide acceptable, objective commentary about developing news or issues in town that deserve investigation.

As I mentioned in my blog post of 2/8/10, a Facebook or Twitter account takes free speech to a new level, giving readers a new avenue to get in touch with their local newspaper. We should not deny them of that. But I also like to view "the rules" of Facebook and Twitter interaction much like the rules of our news blogs or story comment fields. I like how The Quad-City Times lays out its rules for the blogging reader best:

  • Keep it clean.
  • Don't threaten.
  • Be truthful.
  • Be nice.
  • Let us know if it's getting out of hand.
  • Share what you know.
  • Stay focused (and on topic).
But what do you do when these rules are ignored on Facebook or Twitter? If a person veers off topic to point out what's wrong with your brand, but he or she isn't necessarily insulting ... how do you respond, if at all?
Take this recent example of an off-topic complaint about The Beacon-News on its Facebook page, and how it spiraled into a conversation about how much these readers dislike The Beacon's tabloid format, which launched in September (please click on the image if the type is too small for you):

In my experience watching what other news outlets do with social media and how my own followers respond to various approaches of communication, I find it highly respectable when a social journalist interacts with a fan or follower, no matter the circumstance. Of course, for some newspapers such as the Chicago Sun-Times, which has thousands of fans and followers, this is a much more difficult task. But it should be done as often as possible, no matter the size of your following.

It's also important to note that a complaint in an @reply on Twitter is relatively private, i.e. your other followers won't see it unless you RT it, which wouldn't be necessary. But on your Facebook page, it is out there. Your fans will see how you chose to handle it, and your actions will no doubt create an opinion of your branding skills.

In a case such as this that includes a complaint via Facebook about something that no one in your newsroom has much control over, I choose the avenue of a polite response. It shows that we look at what fans are writing on our page, and we're taking their posts seriously:

You'll notice that regardless of my even tone, one of the readers continued to rant, even using against me a previous column I wrote like my blog post from 2/8/10 that criticizes the city of Aurora, Ill., for eliminating comments altogether. It definitely irked me, but I let it go. He's right. The social reader does have the freedom to interact with his or her hometown newspaper, or with the White House, or with Crate and Barrel via Facebook, as long as there is a Facebook fan page available. And, regardless of his tone with me, I remained consistent with the direction I want The Beacon-News' Facebook page to go, and proceeded to kindly answer his "on topic" question.

My goal and what all social journalists' goal should be is to make sure that we embrace social media to our benefit. When it comes to media especially, many outsiders love to talk us down and call us names. It will continue to happen whether or not we have a Facebook profile. The secret is to keep at our own mission for the benefit of all readers, even those who might be full of gripes. It's not always possible to respond to every complaint, but it is possible when you have an easily attainable social platform that broadcasts your human side to your entire following. And it's always possible to remain positive and polite.

I'm curious if anyone has other suggestions of how to handle the complainers and naysayers on Facebook and Twitter. Please post your advice in the comment field of this blog! And remember, on topic, please ;-)

I'll leave you with my own guidelines of how to stay human while on the social media bandwagon, regardless of whether your following is mostly pessimistic or optimistic:
  • Talk to your readers. If you want them to get in on the conversation, do so yourself. Don't hide behind your computer screen. This also will inevitably help you get to know your audience better, which will inevitably lead to a better product.
  • Don't ignore complaints or questions. Answer as many as possible.  If you don't have an answer, pass it on to another editor or reporter who does. An example:

This was a case in which I was originally trying to help the reporter, Rowena Vergara, by RTing her mission of finding comments for a story she was working on related to School District 308. One of my followers needed more details before answering, which I then realized I could not provide. I simply RTed it back to her, and she got back to him with an answer.
  • When RTing a breaking news headline, or tweeting your own bit of news information from your brand's Web site, add some clever commentary. It will make your link look more enticing, and it will show your followers that you do, in fact, have a personality. @CraigNewman does a great job of this with the @SunTimes Twitter page.
  • Make your avatar your face, if your work Twitter account is also a personal one. Check out my Twitter page for The Beacon-News: The bio states exactly what followers are following: Readers' Editor Cynthia Goldberg (there is a seperate Twitter account just for news headlines @BeaconNews). I made my avatar my smiling face to offer some personality, a human aspect, and a window into the newsroom. Another example of this tactic is meterologist @GingerZee from NBC 5 news in Chicago. So, if you're a reporter or an editor and you plan only to use Twitter for news purposes, don't feel like you have to use your brand's logo or masthead. Put your face out there, and you just might start to see more interaction.
If you want to learn more about humanizing yourself in the face of social media marketing, I highly recommend this Poynter Webinar from November. It touches on how to handle "the haters," too.


  1. Thanks for the shout out! I always knew sarcasm would lead me to fame - if not fortune - one day!

  2. I'm so glad you had a chance to read it!