- The block-or-unfollow media relations policy: In the past month, I've seen two high-profile cases of executives blocking or unfollowing reporters who are following them on Twitter in what appear to be punitive moves in the wake of coverage they didn't like. Twitter's own PR chief unfollowed a journalist after unflattering coverage about the company's rumored move out of San Francisco. And Texas Governor Rick Perry has blocked several reporters from following his Twitter feed. (Blocking gets you the message "Could not follow user: You have been blocked from following this account at the request of the user." It must be done selectively by the account holder.) A reporter need only use someone else's account to login and read the Governor's tweets, so this amounts to a high-profile finger-wagging that we wouldn't have known about in days of yore.
- Vaguely unofficial tweets: This Food and Drug Administration public affairs official lists her location as Kansas and doesn't identify her formal role on her Twitter feed, but sometimes uses her tweets for making cryptic criticisms of unnamed reporters, asking reporters how they define embargoes after controversy about an embargo that forbade reporters from calling sources for comment and research, and oddly, extolling the virtues of transparency. You'd have to hunt down this official's LinkedIn profile (and be a member to see the full profile) to confirm that she's actually here in Washington, an FDA official and tweeting under this handle. A related, but different, twist happened earlier when a Red Cross official drunk-tweeted using the nonprofit's Twitter account, resulting in a flurry of proactive and public saves by the organization, which chose to use humor to get past the problem.
- Mistaking the backchannel for a private line: I'm second to none in advocating that you tip reporters off to good stories. But today's New York Times notes that a congressional spokesperson has been fired over the discovery that he was sharing his email exchanges with journalists with another reporter who's writing a book about Washington's political culture. How did this get out? A reporter submitted a Freedom of Information Act request. This could just as likely have involved direct-message tweets, private Facebook messages or other backchannel tools. I've told you before that Twitter DMs and other backchannel messages may not be quite as off-the-record as you think they are, no matter what your agreement with the reporter may be.
Likewise, a public affairs official, of all people, should be identified in her public capacity when she's commenting on public matters, on a social network or elsewhere. You, too, should identify your work connections, even when you're not tweeting on your employer's behalf. Tell us who you really are, please, and where you are really located. The governor's and Twitter's block-and-unfollow tactics were widely decried on Twitter itself, the most open of networks; while these moves may not violate a regulation or law, they're not as smart as they may have seemed at the time. No sunshine out there in Texas or at Twitter? In social media as previously, when your policies become the story, something's wrong...even when you handle it as gracefully as did the Red Cross.
Congratulating yourself that this will never happen to you, smart communicator? Go make sure of it. Have this discussion with your team, build your assumptions into a policy and make it available and public. Check how you and your communications colleagues are identified, especially if you comment on official matters from time to time. Take the time to think through the channels you use to communicate with reporters publicly and behind the scenes. And work through how you'll handle relationships and follows with your team. All these missteps are worth it if you'll build a smarter social media policy as a result.
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