Branded journalists battle newsroom regulations

With social media a big part of newsroom life, individual journalists often find their personal brands attractive selling points for future employers. But lately many of these same social media superstars are questioning whether newsrooms are truly ready for the branded journalist.

In late January, Matthew Keys, Deputy Social Media Editor at Reuters, wrote a blog post in which he criticized his former employer (ABC affiliate KGO-TV in San Francisco) for taking issue with his use of social media. Keys says his supervisors questioned the language, tone and frequency of his tweets, as well as his judgment when he retweeted his competitors.

Not long after Keys’ post went live, CNN’s Roland Martin was suspended for comments he tweeted during the Super Bowl. Then came the news that Britain’s Sky News had revised its social media policies that forbid, among other things, retweeting Sky competitors. And before all of this, ESPN was taken to task for similarly restrictive guidelines that, among other things, prevent reporters there from breaking news on Twitter.

What all of these events suggest is that newsrooms are still coming to terms with how to craft a useful social media policy that meets the needs of the organization, its individual employees, the medium and the audience.

Sree Sreenivasan, dean of student affairs and digital media professor at Columbia Journalism School, told me in a phone conversation that he understands where newsrooms are coming from when they craft rules that seem excessively restrictive.

“At a time of tremendous change at best and upheaval and decline at worst, you are asking [news organizations] to make sense of a dynamic that they are not experienced with.” That lack of understanding leads many news organizations to err, perhaps needlessly, on the side of caution. But personal branding is nothing new to journalists, Sreenivasan said. “Branding has been part of journalism going back to Nellie Bly, Hunter S. Thompson ... these were people known for their brand of journalism.” What has changed, Sreenivasan said, is the speed at which journalists today can develop such a brand.

NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflik has a thriving social media presence. He suggested that organizations need to allow journalists to have an authentic voice on social media, but that individual journalists also need to take responsibility for what they say publicly, whether or not their organization has a clear social media policy in place.

“You give up the notion of being a completely private person,” Folkenflik told me in a phone conversation last month. “I don’t feel as though NPR is perched on my shoulder while I’m tweeting,” Folkenflik said, but added that he follows the same guidelines that he would follow if he were on television or speaking at a public event; he has a personality but is not dogmatic. “People often confuse ‘ideological’ with ‘having a voice,’ ” Folkenflik said.

Brittney Gilbert, Social Media Editor for NBC Bay Area, echoed this sentiment, citing the fact that audiences prefer to connect with personalities on Twitter, not brands.

“People would much rather interact with NBC Bay Area's meteorologist or sports reporter than a faceless entity such as NBC,” Gilbert told me via email. Gilbert said that a productive and healthy social media policy is one that encourages staffers to use social media while at work because doing so, “will only further familiarize team members to the platform they are using.”

But in order to reach a point at which journalists and others are familiarizing themselves with social media or even maintaining brands they’ve already built, employers and employees need to work together to craft social media policy in order to ensure that everyone understands the goals.

Amy Webb, CEO of Webbmedia Group, a digital media strategy agency, wrote in an email: “If a company allows employees to use social media, it must clearly identify how and for what purpose. A social media policy isn't necessarily about restrictions -- it can also be a list of how, when, why, where and how often to use social tools.”

Webb said that employers struggling to give reporters the freedom to develop an authentic presence on sites like Twitter need to think about how doing so helps everyone -- the individual journalist and the organization as a whole.

“I don't live in Chicago, but because I know Brian Boyer in real life and through his various social profiles, I'm compelled to click on the Chicago Tribune website more often.” Smart organizations, said Webb, are the ones that recognize their individual reporters often introduce their social media following to the outlet for which they work, which grows the organization’s reach in the long run.

Boyer, news applications editor for the Tribune, agreed and noted that his employer has been very flexible in allowing reporters and others to experiment on social media.

“I haven’t felt any pressure to be anything other than myself,” Boyer told me. “I approached them and said, ‘Listen, this is what I’m going to do.’ I tweet and I blog… I also made it clear that our team was going to blog and our team was going to be on social media.” His supervisors have trusted his judgment, but Boyer has earned that trust. “You don’t want to undermine the credibility or objectivity of the organization you work for,” Boyer said.

In order to maintain that credibility, here are some guidelines for employers and employees working to address social media in the newsroom.


  • Have a policy in place and refine it periodically, involving staff in the process.
  • Make sure guidelines are clear so that employees know how social media fits into their daily workflow. Does everyone at the organization need to spend a lot of time on social media channels, or are those tasks relegated to a specific group of employees?
  • Allow room for journalists to have an authentic personality on social media. As Sreenivasan put it: “Remember that part of the reason you hired these people is their personal brand in the first place.”


  • Have a conversation about social media with employers even before you get the job, particularly if you have developed a following on platforms like Twitter. Find out what future employers expect when it comes to balancing working on the organization accounts and sending updates through your personal accounts while on the clock.
  • Have a personality, but don’t be obnoxious. It’s not all about you. As Folkenflik put it, “You have to take care of the network’s concerns too.”
  • Don’t spend all of your time broadcasting. Remember that social media is also about listening. As Gilbert put it in her email to me, “By listening on social media platforms, reporters come away with better story ideas, producers come away with better candidates for interviews and the station as a whole can better know what it is their audience really wants.” Plus, the more time you spend listening on social media, the stronger your judgment becomes.

Everyone I talked to agreed that balance is important: Employers need to give their staff the room to experiment and learn to leverage social media in the most effective ways. And journalists need to be mindful of how their activity affects not only the organization they work for, but their personal reputation as well. Sreenivasan said he would remind young journalists that the best way to build a "personal brand" is by "knocking it out of the park at work every day."


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