Anatomy of a social media policy

By Andrew Lundy, director of digital at The Canadian Press

I knew Scott White was serious about a new and comprehensive social media policy for The Canadian Press when he put a sticky note up on his office whiteboard.

By Andrew Lundy, director of digital at The Canadian Press

I knew Scott White was serious about a new and comprehensive social media policy for The Canadian Press when he put a sticky note up on his office whiteboard.

CP’s editor-in-chief uses that board to track the major jobs to be done over the next few months, and that “New Social Media Policy” sticky note represented the first major task Scott gave me when I started this job in January. CP already had in place a “social networking policy” but it wasn’t recent and it was pretty brief. It did serve as a great starting point for our new policy, but more needed to be done.

I’m proud to say we did more, much more, and this summer managed to unveil CP’s new social media policy and take that sticky note off Scott’s board. Here’s how it happened:

This was, first, a collaborative effort, the product of many hours of researching, talking, debating, consulting and writing. We created a special policy committee, comprised of 14 staff members from varied areas of The Canadian Press/La Presse Canadienne across the country. We met weekly and discussed daily in emails and hallway chats.

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We started by asking ourselves how rule-heavy we wanted our policy to be. We used a 1-5 scale with 1 being the simple “don’t be a moron” style of policy typified by The New York Times and 5 representing the lengthy and tightly controlled approaches often favoured by large non-media companies. We settled somewhere in the 2 range.

Inspiration came from a mix of sources: other news organizations like The Associated Press, CBC, CAJ, American Society of Newspaper Editors; key social media practitioners; sites and organizations including Mashable and Poynter. But most of all we drew from past experiences—including mistakes—and CP’s own culture, history and aspirations.

One aspect of that culture is our business structure. Canadian Press is unique among Canadian news organizations in that our content lives only through our clients. We don’t have our own news web site or interactive platforms to host the work we do. That becomes tricky when we want to promote our content. Which client do we choose to showcase? Trickier still, do we break news on Twitter when we have many clients who pay us to break news to them strictly through dedicated channels? Not disrupting our own business model became an important part of the discussion.

A key principle we still embrace is the requirement to remain objective and keep our work free of opinion. There is a trend within journalism—sparked, I think, by digital culture—to allow reporters’ and editors’ personal opinions to infuse their work, or at least let them cut loose in social media. We had plenty of spirited debate on the topic, but in the end there was a strong consensus that remaining objective and avoiding punditry will continue to be a hallmark of The Canadian Press on all platforms.

The result of all that discussion and debate is a uniquely CP document.

The policy can be summarized with our six Rules of Thumb:

  1. Be smart: think before you post or interact online.
  2. Traditional rules still apply: existing policies concerning sourcing, confidentiality, fairness and libel still matter.
  3. Precedence is important: consider our paying subscribers before pushing content onto free social media platforms.
  4. You are The Canadian Press: no matter your label or avatar, you’ll be connected online to CP, so act accordingly.
  5. Be a person, not an account: social media is made of people, so engage them, treat them with respect, and remember it’s OK to have some fun.
  6. When in doubt, ask: social media is ever-evolving and we’re still figuring it out. Don’t be afraid to consult someone before posting.

Perhaps most critically, our new policy is essentially written in (digital) pencil. It covers the current state of social media and includes some best-practice advice for platforms like Twitter, and it builds on CP’s existing policies and our widely admired journalistic standards. But social media’s pace of change is frenetic and we need to be ready to continually modify, erase and create, so we’ll reconvene our committee to review the policy regularly and make changes if necessary.

So far the reaction from staff has been positive, with a few understandable questions and some valuable suggestions already in the hopper. We’ll be following up the policy with a cross-country training session in the coming months that will likely spark the next iteration of the policy.

Which likely means another sticky note on Scott’s board.