Are media organisations ‘draconian’ over journalists’ tweets?

Aaron Lee

By clamping down on journalists using Twitter, media organisations aren’t doing themselves any favours, says Aaron Lee.

The argument over Twitter and professional conduct took a step up this week when word that Sky News is clamping down on staff tweets sent ripples of indignation through media land.

In short, Sky is now ordering their staff to cease retweeting posts from rival journalists and users, and to pass all scoops to the newsdesk. Users quickly dubbed it a “draconian” move by the broadcaster, while some media commentators, like Forbes’ Ewan Spence, claimed Sky have every right to do so.

When it comes to verifying sources and protecting their brand, Sky is right to advise editorial discipline in the midst of rampant Chinese whispers. During last year’s Nov 9 student protest, EastLondonLines verified a number of rumours circulating on Twitter that turned out to be completely false.

But, what Sky is actually doing is imposing ownership over their employees’ Twitter accounts, regardless of whether they are personal or professional – and this issue is only beginning. Media organisations are getting nervous over their journalists becoming bigger than their brand, and they are taking action.

Political reporter Laura Kuenssberg took her 60,000 followers with her when she switched from the BBC to ITV last summer. The move caused heated debate over who owns journalists’ accounts. Concern over the personal Twitter accounts of BBC staff prompted a revision of the Beeb’s guidelines on social media, leading some of their staff, like Rory-Cellan Jones, to maintain separate accounts.

Journalism has always been about moving fast, and Sky knows this better than most. But what they haven’t grasped is that reputation and engagement are a far greater catch when it comes to their presence on social media – and one-to-one contact from journalists is what earns that currency. Users follow journalists for insight, expertise and opinion. But Twitter is also a conversation. Sharing links to other publications can led to debate, inform fellow colleagues of stories they may have missed and even generate fresh ones.

To enforce rules against tweeting rivals and, worse, other users, is to halt the process of mutual exchange that thrives on Twitter. Yes, journalists should absolutely exercise caution when retweeting, but to declare en mass that their social media engagements, however beneficial they could be, should remain mute is foolhardy.

Sky has set itself up for trouble by exercising micromanagement in a medium that’s growing laterally. It can pretend the competition doesn’t exist if it wishes, but that won’t help its reputation inside or outside its walls.

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