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A common subject of debate on our digital PR training courses is the effect that social media, and in particular the fast-moving Twitter, has on the way news is made and our relationship with journalists and news organisations. How do we know if a journalist is credible when they break news on Twitter? What happens when a journalist leaves the organisation and takes their followers with them? Is it right for a journalist to speculate about a story online?

The new Twitter policy at Sky News, leaked to The Guardian, reveals how they’ve decided to tackle these questions: by pulling hard on the leash. In summary the policy says journalist should not:

  • repost information from any Twitter users not employed by Sky
  • retweet rival journalists or ‘people on Twitter’
  • tweet about non-work subjects, or even stray from their own beat
  • break news from their own beat on Twitter before passing it to the news desk

It seems particularly bizarre of Sky News to take this path as their Digital News Editor Neal Mann (or @fieldproducer) has been ranked the most influential UK journalist on Twitter, no doubt in part because he does (did?) so effectively the things that he’s now banned from doing. Finding and sharing interesting news from a range of sources (curating, to use the jargon) is a great way to become valued in your own right. And showing your human, non-work side from time to time will build up loyalty (enough loyalty to trigger a #savefieldproducer hashtag campaign).

The justification given by Sky News is that this is necessary to ensure “sufficient editorial control” and that they are “joined up across platforms”. Fair enough – we would never advise any of our clients to sanction a free-for-all and being right is still more important than being first. A policy that helps manage reputation risk is essential for social media success, and it’s perfectly possible to have broad guidelines that allow for exceptions where competency has been clearly demonstrated. The Ministry of Defence is a great example.

But, this policy seems to have another agenda – the old dogs of the corporate news organisation reminding the young pups of social media who the boss is (for now anyway). The subtext of the policy is “we own you” and you’ll play by the broadcast rules because that’s how our business model works. The most striking thing for me is that the aforementioned @fieldproducer, the Digital News Editor, didn’t even take part in the discussion that led to this policy, from which we can speculate that he either wasn’t invited or knew it was a foregone conclusion.

Deep beneath all the fluff, social media is causing tectonic shifts in power in media, politics and society. A little earthquake just broke out in Teddington.

Credit to @mattnavarrauk for making me aware of this story.

NB: In case you’re wondering, the headline is a reference to an apocryphal headline by a Times journalist called Claud Cockburn: “Small earthquake in Chile. Not many hurt”.