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Should The Washington Post Rethink Its Social Media Policy?

If you didn't hear about it already, The Washington Post recently sent a memo to its staff instructing them not to answer any critics from Twitter accounts that are official, branded Washington Post accounts.

Why? The Post published an article called, “Christian compassion requires the truth about harms of sexuality” after the surge of teenage suicides over homosexuality, and GLAAD (a gay activist group) lashed out via Twitter. A Washington Post staff member attempted to defend the article, but it only fueled the fire.

You can view the actual tweet here.

After this incident, a Managing Editor at the Post sent out a memo to employees banning them from tweeting via the Post-branded account. Here are some highlights:

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.”

First of all, isn’t this exactly what “audience engagement” is? No one said all engagement is positive commentary.

Second, if branded Post accounts aren’t used to answer critics and speak on behalf of the Post, then what are they for? If you have an official Twitter account, you’re opening up the channel for communication. You can’t control what people say on social media and you can’t only use it when it suits you, i.e. to promote your news stories, because people don’t need to follow your social media “rules” – they follow their own.

When we write a story, our readers are free to respond and we provide them with 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.”

Just like all organizations that engage in social media, The Washington Post needs to adapt to the way social media has changed communication. It’s no longer controlled. With social media, there’s no choosing which letters to the editor are printed and shared with the public. People are going to give their two cents, whether it’s directly on your branded Twitter account or on their own personal blog, and there’s nothing you can do about it but respond in the way you find most appropriate for the situation.

Not having control over the message might be a scary thought, but there’s another side to it: you have control over the response. Social media gives all organizations the opportunity to respond, clarify and defend their position in ways they weren’t able to before.

In this instance, the editor of The Washington Post thought that it wasn’t appropriate to respond. But my point is that people are going to say these things regardless…why wouldn’t you respond?

By no means am I suggesting an unprofessional, slanderous response. But a respectful, thought out response shows you care about what your readers have to say (even when it’s negative) and it gives you the chance to clear the air by explaining your point of view.

I know the Post memo was an attempt at damage control. Maybe there was a better way of approaching it, maybe not. But I think The Washington Post is missing out on a huge opportunity to deepen relationships with its readers. After all, your readers are everything – without them you have no publication. And, really, a little controversy never hurt anyone.

What do you think? Does The Washington Post need to rethink its social media policy?