ON PERMANENT RECORD: Social Media Survival Guide

In the last few weeks there has been what seems an unusually high number of social media gaffes by journalists. Survive has focused a lot of attention on trying to help journalists avoid this public and frankly permanent record of embarrassment.  It appears it is time for another round of discussion about this. So let’s dive in to the recurring pitfalls that make journalists look bad on social media, and ways to avoid them.

Top Danger Zones

Selfie backgrounds and tone
Responding to attacks
Teasing a story

The biggest potential pitfall without a doubt, is the background of a selfie and your tone describing it. Look, I get it. Selfies are the way to show where you are and what you are doing. And, yes, a lot of people just love seeing them. I understand that they are an important and effective way to communicate. In and of itself, the concept of a selfie is great. But not when you end up smiling at murder scenes, fatal accidents and just after weather events. The key here is to literally take a step back, and think about your background image. Even if a viewer cannot see the burning house, the crime tape or the tornado damage, the time of day and location of your selfie will out you. We have to remember as journalists that although reporters and anchors are instrumental in telling stories, viewers tune in for the facts and relatable information in the story even more. It is the simple truth. That includes your social media page. They follow you because they like how you share information with them. You and information. Not just you. You are still a stranger. Someone they like to spy on in a way, and seethings vicariously through.. but still a stranger. So you cannot expect the viewer to know your intention by sending a selfie out from a crime scene. And while we are at it headed to a crime scene, murder trial or fire. You come across as harsh, insensitive and frankly narcissistic. I do believe many journalists making these mistakes have good intentions. They want to show they are on a story and think of selfies because they are a natural part of everyday interactions with fans and friends. I think these journalists are often trying to show that they are on a big story and are eager to bring viewers all the information they can. A camera means smile, so they smile out of habit. But remember, viewers do not routinely “hang out” at crime scenes. Many live in gripping fear of large, destructive, weather events. Viewers follow you for information. Selfies for journalists, should not happen on the scene or headed to or from the scene of a story that is serious and/or tragic in nature. It really is that simple. When taking a selfie, stop to consider where you are or are headed to first. If it is serious in nature stick to images of the scene. Keep your selfie out of it.

Lets get more into the idea of the tone of your message. Remember, viewers follow your social media accounts in order to gain information. So, every time you express an opinion, you could be stepping into another dangerous pitfall. FTVLive recently exposed two cases of tweets that came across as very insensitive. A journalist excited at the possibility of covering her first hurricane, and another journalist calling out a “beggar” who seems to always be in the same area looking for a handout.

Both of these tweets express opinions. I am guessing both merely wanted to get a conversation going and hoped to be relatable to followers on Twitter. The problem is, opinions are a very slippery slope. Especially for journalists who are supposed to be objective in their professional lives. Even commenting on sports can be tricky, if you happen to root for a main rival team from the city/state where you work. Seriously. It can cause a backlash. An ND recently told me about a weekend anchor who said he hoped a rival team wins next week against the state team in a huge SEC football town. He got so many complaints about that anchor’s comments he debated firing the anchor to “keep the peace.”  You can talk to your friends and family about your opinions regarding news stories and issues. But don’t plaster them all over social media. Opinions like “I had a great run today.” and “I love drinking coffee.” are fine. Those sorts of comments will likely not create a heated response. But bottom line, social media is full of people who like to start fights. And journalists are a great target especially if they share opinions on things they are supposed to be objective about.

This leads to the third common pitfall, responding to critics. We have addressed this issue before, but it deserves going over again.  There are many wonderful people on social media. There also are a lot of trouble makers who want to incite public figures. On-air talent: On social media, because of your job, you are a public figure. Producers: You are too in many ways. You can be a target for people with an axe to grind against your station, your community or people who they deem to have public influence. Recently a meteorologist in DC shot back at someone on Twitter. He took heat for it too. Another meteorologist in Orlando recently blogged how hard it can be to deal with bullies.

To summarize, in simple terms, think of this analogy: It’s rarely the person who throws the first punch who gets caught and punished. It’s normally the second person. As maddening as it is, you have to take the higher ground. Period. If the bully is exceptionally nasty, let management know. Your safety is critical. These attacks, while totally uncalled for, can do you more harm if you respond with an attack, than if you ignore them. These bullies just do not deserve to get the best of you.
And now the last danger zone. Teases.  Remember that half the burden is gone for you on social media. You are not begging viewers to stay. They are actively seeking you out. Lately there have been several incidents where the “tease writer” on the social media account showed a scene from the station, and it looked insensitive.  I think part of the problem is social media writers are given mandates and try and force a square peg into a round hole. Yes, it can be very good to show “behind the scenes” crews working for you images. But again, think tone. This simple rule can once again help you avoid gaffes. If the story is serious in nature, leave the journalists image out of it. Focus on the scene. Focus on the impact, not the instrument providing the information. Also, a quick reminder. You do not have to make a story relatable by comparing it to a hit show or attempting to be witty. The characters and reason you are covering the story should be enough of a draw.

News organizations are trying to come up with basic guidelines, as a result of so many blunders on social media. The biggest battle all agree is the common thinking it’s only Twitter. Or it’s only Facebook. But unlike TV where we old timers like to say, “now it’s out in the universe” after a show airs, social media is permanent. There are ways to find even the comments you delete. Once you put a Tweet or FB or Instagram post out there, it is always out there for better or worse. It is crucial to understand the comments can and will haunt. As we mentioned before your Twitter account says a lot about you.  You have to make sure it is a good message your parents, minister, rabbi and boss would want to be aligned with. Not just read, but be connected to permanently. So look for these common pitfalls and don’t fall for them. Your reputation is too important.