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Oct 2010

Social media restrictions for small businesses?

Posted in Social Media | 0 Comments

While many small businesses are just starting to get their heads around the advantages of using social media to further their business success, it appears that some larger businesses are already clamping down on their employees’ social media freedom. But will it benefit these businesses in the long run?

The organisations in question are both media companies: The Guardian newspaper in the UK and The Washington Post in the US. The crackdown in their journalists’ use of social media tools was sparked after The Post published a controversial article in its ‘On Faith’ section. After complaints made via Twitter, The Post defended the publication, also via their Twitter account – thus inciting a very public debate, with the newspaper’s name on it.

The subsequent guidelines stated that “journalists must refrain from writing, tweeting or posting anything – including photographs or video – that could be perceived as reflecting political racial, sexist, religious or other bias or favoritism that could be used to tarnish our journalistic credibility.” Whilst this might well avoid damaging the reputation of this publication, it puts writers, who are frequently encouraged to convey their personality within their work, in the difficult position of prioritising the publication’s impartiality. This is also applies to their personal accounts, which may still be associated with their newspaper byline, especially by digital readers.

This week, it appears that The Guardian have also followed suit and issued “new social media guidelines for Guardian journalists“, within which staff are reminded of former editor CP Scott’s motto that “comment is free, but facts are sacred.” However, the majority of the guidelines take a slightly more lenient approach than The Post, and place emphasis on the need to “take responsibility for the conversations you start”.

But is this type of social media restriction to the benefit of small businesses? Or is this, perhaps, a rare example of where small companies shouldn’t follow quite so keenly in the footsteps of larger organisations?

Of course, neither of these institutions would wish to end public interaction altogether. The Post’s statement goes on to say, “our readers are free to respond and we provide them a venue to do so…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.” This suggests that, despite being one of the most internet-savvy publications, The Post still regards social media as being somewhat unprofessional when not being used to simply issue sound-bites and article links.

However, whether this will preserve credibility in the eyes of readers remains to be seen. The fact that The Post’s senior-post editor, Raju Narisetti, has already closed his Twitter account speaks volumes about how far staff will be prepared to censor their opinions in the name of impartiality.

Journalism, in particular, is a field which relies on a certain amount of engagement with its readers. Journalist Roy Greenslade has already stated that The Post’s “memo smacks of ‘big media’ arrogance”, and it is very possible that this could be the effect generated by small businesses who attempt similar practices.

Social media has proved an essential form of audience building for newspapers – which, in the world of businesses, equates to customer building. Media-focussed writer Glynnis MacNicol has already gone as far as to ask whether these organisations are “signing their own death sentence” with such strict guidelines. Whilst these large companies might not suffer at the hand of such restrictions, there is every chance that smaller businesses might. Whilst exposing a personal opinion can be a risky practice within a professional arena, successful businesses are undoubtedly aided by the building of client relationships – which most of us would have to agree have only been enhanced by the introduction of social media technology.

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