Your Company Doesn’t Need A Social Media Rulebook (Just Some Common Sense)

The New York Times has impressed me not once, but twice this week.

First, they’ve decided to experiment with turning off their automated (and very robotic) @nytimes Twitter feed in favour of having the updates managed by (gasp) real people. Which means (as you can see here) actual engagement.

(Although, being frank, it’s pretty fleeting at the moment. But still, they’re trying.)

Second, Liz Heron, The New York Times social media editor (and one of the scribes behind the new-and-human @nytimes account) spoke at the BBC’s Social Media Summit earlier this week and revealed that the Times has a satisfyingly laid-back approach to the management of their social media program, too.

“We don’t really have any social media guidelines. We basically just tell people to use common sense and don’t be stupid.”

And the best part? Their social media team is made up of just three people.

“We tell our journalists and encourage them to not just think about it as distribution and promotion,” said Heron. “In fact, if you just think about it only as distribution, you’re not getting what you can out of social media, the most that you can, which is really about user interaction, engagement and news gathering.”

How refreshing is that?

As the value of social media has become increasingly apparent, brands (large and small) have reacted by throwing large amounts of money and resources behind their programs. And to be absolutely certain that everything gets done to the letter of the law, many of them have created internal social media policies and guidelines for their staff, some of which are, well, enormous.

Picture the scene: you’re starting work at a new company as part of their growing social media team. You arrive on day one all inspired and excited about the sheer, endless possibilities, only to be immediately presented with 10,000 words about things you’re not allowed to do. Or talk about. Or retweet. Or link to. Or quote.


Sure, only a very naïve business would let their employees run riot on their social channels. But the reality is that all the policy in the world won’t prevent misuse. What matters is hiring the right people to do the job, and then empowering them to make the right decisions on your behalf.

Social media is all about engagement and relationships. Everything should feel smooth and natural. If you have to continuously stop and look something up to see if it’s okay, you’re doing it wrong. Sure, there’s lots to learn, but most of this should come to you organically – not handed down from the mountaintop.

Bosses, for your part you need to accept that people are going to make mistakes from time to time. We’re not robots, and nobody wants robots. But your staff will make ten times as many errors if you’re always looking over their shoulder, or expect them to follow the letter of some ridiculously complex series of laws.

Yep, go ahead and write down a few bullet points of things that really matter. That’s a smart move, as not all businesses are the same. Could I be so bold as to propose no more than ten items, each 140 characters or less (which will have a powerful subliminal effect), all crystal clear and easy to understand? That fits on just on page. The rest? That’s just common sense. And if it isn’t, you need to find better people.

Revise and update as necessary, and circulate amongst your team. And not just the folks you’ve specifically designated to be responsible for your Twitter and Facebook updates – everybody. You never know when you might need somebody else to step up.

As a species, we have a tendency to overcomplicate things. Middle management in particular seems to relish in the production of pages and pages of notes, thoughts, suggestions and rules, if only to justify their vocational existence. I say: throw all that stuff out. I say, never be complete. I say, stop trying to be perfect.

And let the tweets fall where they may.