BBC and Reuters turn to social media guidelines after staff tweet trouble

First off just so we’re clear the BBC hasn’t banned retweets. Here’s what happened. There was a story at the weekend in the Telegraph about BBC R4 Today presenter James Naughtie and his stay at a hotel in Japan in tsunami-hit Sendai. Naughtie’s producer had tweeted a picture of the presenter at the hotel and described it as the “luvvve hotel”. Of course, it was retweeted.

Clearly, it was an inappropriate tweet. Following the “luvvve” tweet it was initially reported by the Telegraph  that the BBC had banned retweeting on the back of the incident.  It hadn’t. What it did was remind staff of its social media guidelines.

In the US Thomson Reuters experienced similar Twitter woes. It now faces a civil suit from a government organisation after reprimanding a member of staff about a tweet.

The Telegraph story, about the BBC luvvve retweet ban (it has since been corrected), highlights the dangers of what an errant tweet can lead to as Twitter and its reach grows. Everything cascades in social media and ever increasingly so.

I read the BBC story and then retweeted it as did others before being corrected. Various BBC people then began tweeting the BBC’s social media guidance, which is intended to help BBC producers implement BBC social media strategy on social networking sites.

In the US, Thomson Reuters now faces what could potentially be the first government case (brought by the National Labor Relations Board) against an employer involving Twitter.

The NLRB accuses Thomson Reuters of “illegally reprimanding a reporter” over a tweet in which Washington-based environmental reporter Deborah Zabarenko criticised management. Clearly not something you want to do (everyone is after all watching), but the board says Reuters violated her right to discuss working conditions.

So what did Zabarenko say? She tweeted: “One way to make this the best place to work is to deal honestly with Guild [the US NUJ] members.”

But Zabarenko, also head of the Newspaper Guild at Reuters, only sent the message to a Reuters Twitter address (managing editor Betty Wong, @DestinationRTRS) after a supervisor had invited staff to tweet about how to make Reuters a better place to work.

“The next day the bureau chief called me at home,” Ms. Zabarenko said in an interview with the New York Times. “He told me that Reuters had a policy that we were not supposed to say something that would damage the reputation of Reuters News or Thomson Reuters. I felt kind of threatened. I thought it was some kind of intimidation.”

Tricky one maybe. Zabarenko is clearly making disparaging remarks about Reuters implying that its dealings with the trade union representing journalists are dishonest, but she was asked for her view. So no foul, right? It is a clear case that the wrong tools for the job were used. This is, I would have thought, an internal discussion and not one for a very public social network.

Although officially Thomson Reuters is downplaying it. A spokeswoman said they were “surprised by the board’s complaint because it did not believe Ms. Zabarenko had even been disciplined”. She added that the company’s social media guidelines were straightforward. And they are:

What guidelines apply to my personal Twitter use? The same rules apply as for personal blogging — you should make it clear that you a) work for Reuters News; b) any views expressed do not represent those of your employer; and c) you say nothing that would damage the reputation of Reuters News or TR.

If Zabrenko is guilty of anything it is the common sense rule, which Reuters emphasises in its social media guidelines:

A distinguishing feature of Reuters is the trust invested in its journalists to rise above personal biases in their work and to apply common sense in dealing with the challenges offered by social media.

There is in both cases a time and a place for social networks and a time and place for the kind of things we can and should not say. Cracking jokes about “luvvve” hotels while journalists cover the tragedy in Japan is wildly inappropriate. In the same way telling (even if asked to do so) your employer that they need to deal with unions more honestly is perhaps not for Twitter consumption.

The BBC guide offers some good advice (along with a lot of other guides out there). It covers most of what you would expect from editorial purpose, use of the BBC brand, syndication, social media representatives, tone of voice and level of engagement, to linking, Twitter,  and the tricky issue of making friends in social media (and what that friendship implies for your brand).

Under its guidelines at the moment the BBC encourages the retweeting of its own content by staff, but as the “luvvve” tweet highlighted that still takes some judgment aka commonsense. Deploy often.

“You may wish to consider forwarding or “retweeting” a selection of a person’s microblog entries/posts or “tweets”. This is very unlikely to be a problem when you are “retweeting” a colleague’s BBC “tweet” or a BBC headline. But in some cases, you will need to consider the risk that “retweeting” of third party content by the BBC may appear to be an endorsement of the original author’s point of view.

“It may not be enough to write on your BBC microblog’s biography page that “retweeting” does not signify endorsement, particularly if the views expressed are about politics or a matter of controversial public policy. Instead you should consider adding your own comment to the “tweet” you have selected, making it clear why you are forwarding it and where you are speaking in your own voice and where you are quoting someone else’s.”

The adding of comments to tweets is half of the time the thing that can give context and increase the likelihood that people will click and share. Its something that brands and media owners, where they can and have the times, should do more of generally. A simple headline will  not always pull people in. You have to work hard to make the best of your 140 characters.

The BBC guidelines also have good pointers on resource and levels of engagement. How much engagement can you afford? With ever more pressure and the feeling that we must cover all bases it is a real issue. On this point it does relate to the above. As with so little time there is a danger that we do things too quickly and make mistakes or bad judgment calls.

The BBC guide serves as a timely reminder that it is pointless launching loads of things if they are not then maintained, monitored and managed. You have to have enough time and resource. If you don’t focus your efforts on fewer outlets.

Level of Engagement

Before the page/profile/site is launched, you will need to decide with the relevant Interactive Editor/senior editorial figure what level of engagement you want, what resources you will need to achieve it and over what period of time.

For example, a page which advertises forthcoming editions of a TV programme with clips and some background information will need regular refreshing. But you may want to offer a higher level of user engagement on the BBC-branded space.

For example,

* Will users be able to upload still, audio or video contributions? (See also Legal and Rights Issues below)
* Will users be able to add their own text comments?

If so,

* How do you plan to engage with the community? Will you offer a host presence, for example, to answer a question about when the next series is starting?
* How do you plan to protect the BBC brand? Will you need to consider some additional moderation?
* Do you have the necessary resources to do the job properly?

I’d advise taking a look at the full BBC guide and you might also want to check out some tips The Guardian published last year that I blogged about and my six tips for social media engagement too.

You can find the Thomson Reuters social media guidelines here.

  • Courtney Hunt

    The Digital Hall of Shame is getting increasingly crowded, and the examples in this story reinforce the premise behind my blog post entitled “Social Media Policies: Necessary but not Sufficient,” which can be accessed via

    I’ve also written about other NLRB cases involving social media, prompted by their complaint against an employer in Connecticut who allegedly fired an employee for her FB posts. The latest piece can be accessed via

    We’re still figuring how where and how to draw the lines…

    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community

  • CreatingSkies

    It’s one thing to have social media guidelines and another thing to implement it. How does an organization encourage responsible social media use without shackling expression? Should the “common sense rule” be expressed in more concrete terms?

    Here are some practices we advocate in our org:

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  • Courtney Hunt

    I just published a blog post that referenced this piece. It’s entitled, “Is the NLRB Turning up the “Social Media Heat” too High? No… Not Yet” and can be accessed via

    Please feel free to add a comment there if you’re so inclined.

    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community
    Principal, Renaissance Strategic Solutions


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