28 September 2011

How Twitter can get you sacked

Journalists are expected, as a matter of course, to engage and interact fully with social media. Twitter has quickly become one of the single biggest global sources of breaking news.

With stories and seismic political events like the Arab Spring being driven and played out through Twitter, it’s not hard to see why desk-bound and under-resourced journalists are trawling the network regularly for stories.

The problem is that journalists are not simply using Twitter and Facebook to find and follow stories. Many use it as a platform to promote themselves and their work and interact with readers and viewers.

This is where trouble lies. Too many journalists willingly list and link to their employer on their personal facebook and twitter profiles. Even where the link to the employer is not made directly clear, or people follow their profile with the classic “views my own”, staff journalists everywhere are now laying themselves wide open to potential disciplinary action or even dismissal.

Many hacks fall into the trap of thinking that in our celebrity obsessed world, having a big shiny twitter profile and lots of followers will equate in some way to increasing their professional standing and gravitas.

Whether or not this is true, it leads many journalists trying hard to build up their number of followers.

One surefire way to guarantee piling on a big following is to be reporting live from some major event before the live cameras manage to get there.

But in the absence of this good fortune, the only other way to bump up the follower count is to tweet constantly on the big trending topics - and in most cases, say something controversial on those topics. In other cases, even the profile pages themselves are controversial – over sexual or over sensational – to try to attract attention.

All of this can all too often end up with journalists being hauled up by employers for appearing to sully the good name of the publication or organisation they work for.

I have dealt with a multitude of disciplinary hearings in the past few years relating to conduct on Twitter – and unfortunately seen several people lose their jobs as a result of that conduct.

Many journalists (and non-NUJ members) will read this and sniff, saying that they get on fine with their editors and are doing well so need not worry about a bit of ugly twitter banter.

But as many people I have represented will testify to – employment relationships can change overnight and very often, particularly in the smaller workplaces, the golden girls and boys can quickly go to being the dunce in the corner.

Facebook also brings with it many dangers. Virtually every workplace bullying or harassment case coming into my orbit at the moment has evidence involving some comment or status made somewhere on Facebook. 

Colleagues you had counted as friends can have a nasty habit of copying and sending on those little barbed comments you thought were just amongst a small select group of people all the way up to management. Something similar to this happened to me in the dim and distant past, so I’ve had first-hand experience of this.

Regular readers of this blog will even know how we managed to expose the behavior of the scabs on the recent South Yorkshire Newspapers strike by simply looking at their publicly available interactions on Facebook. Funny as it was, we should all learn from this.

I recently authored a draft set of points that I hope the NUJ New Media Industrial Council will adopt as formal guidelines for our members using social media, setting out ways journalists can use the technology professionally but safely in terms of protecting their rights at work.

In the mean-time I urge all journalists to play safe online and try never to mix business with pleasure in the online world.

My basic advice is thus:

If you’re not happy with a picture or comment being put on a piece of paper and put directly in front of your entire team of managers to look at, then don’t say it ANYWHERE on the internet, even privately. If you must live out your entire life and all your personal interactions online – remember that everyone in the world could potentially be able to see everything you write and you should work on the assumption that a permanent record of everything you say will exist FOREVER.

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