AP and the challenge organizations face with social media

After considerable outrage, the Associated Press finally deleted a two-week-old Tweet that erroneously claimed that half of Hillary Clinton’s meetings as Secretary of State were with Clinton Foundation donors.

In fact, only a small percentage of Hillary’s meetings as Secretary were with people who were prior Clinton Foundation donors.

What’s more, AP was unable to find anyone who got a meeting with Hillary only because they were a Foundation donor. Nor could AP find any donor who got a meeting and then got some favor they wouldn’t have gotten without a donation.

In other words, AP found little smoke and no fire.

In response to the controversy over its erroneous tweet, the AP says it’s setting up a new “internal policy review” for its tweets.

From the Hill:

AP also said that a new internal review policy will apply to all their tweets, and any deleted content on Twitter will be accompanied by a separate explanation for the removal.

At first that sounds like an awfully onerous and silly policy. Is every tweet really going to be reviewed by a board of examiners before it goes out? Is AP really going to sit on tweets for hours while the competition scoops them?

But then, you realize just how much of an unregulated Wild West social media has become for large companies like AP. Something has to give, lest companies and politicians increasingly trash their hard-earned credibility through sloppy social media.

Social media is a de facto extension of an organization’s communications team. It ought to be de jure. In the past, only the comms team, media office, and/or press secretary could speak on behalf of the organization to the outside world. With the advent of social media, that’s all changed. We’ve empowered often- recent college grads in their early 20s — with little to no training in public relations, but who give good tweet — to speak publicly on behalf of an organization.

Is it any wonder that mistakes then follow?

When I worked at the UN, I was impressed and concerned about my organization’s strong embrace of social media. Members of my team would urge new hires from across the agency to blog and tweet about their work experience on social media like Twitter and LinkedIn. I was taken aback, and warned those same new hires that they really ought to check with their bosses before they start tweeting and blogging just anything about the office. My significantly-younger staff couldn’t understand my concern, and found it very old fuddy-duddy.

The thing is, my team didn’t have my experience watching sloppy messaging turn into a PR disaster. In fact, I’ve made my living out of taking those messaging errors and making them go super-viral with the media and grassroots, to the detriment of the organization or politician involved. It’s a serious, and valid, question whether we should be empowering people in their early 20s, with little to no PR experience or oversight, to speak publicly on behalf of their organizations.

To the degree social media gurus argue that they have the functional equivalent of a PhD in public relations because of the amount of time they spend online, I’m not so convinced. The Internet leans towards the libertarian, and has a bias towards publishing. (Wikileaks is an extreme example.) My bias, as a seasoned communications professional, who has studied law, and then worked in the media and with the media, is to be anally careful about what I write; and to make sure that my work isn’t simply accurate, but that it also will have the impact I want it to. And I’ve been pretty successful with that strategy, both online and off.

But the fact remains that in order to have a good social media presence, you have to be willing to stick your neck out a bit, be quick, spontaneous, and yes, edgy. And it’s also true that some of the young guns are pretty good at it. But many of them simply do not have the experience of an AP copy editor or headline writer — yet they’re given the equivalent of that job on social media.

The reality is that at some point you have to delegate. As the head of Internet strategy for a UN agency, I didn’t have time to review every single tweet or post we published to our multi-million subscribers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn. Especially when there’s breaking news — which we didn’t have as often at the UN, but places like AP have all the time — you don’t always have the hours it can take for a boss to review every single tweet or post.

Part of the solution may be treating social media as media, and ensuring that social media staff have the kind of ongoing media training that other spokespeople have at an organization. Social media staff need to fully appreciate the gravity of their work, the potential for things to go horribly wrong, and that it’s always more important to get it right than first. This is especially true when you work for an organization, like AP, that is built on a reputation of being the gold standard for truth and accuracy.

In the end, this is definitely a conflict that is going to be difficult to resolve. Social media demands a quick and sometimes informal approach that has been traditionally anathema to corporate America and politics. But if you look at the Twitter feeds of Hillary Clinton’s campaign or San Francisco’s BART transportation system, it’s clear that some old-timers have already mastered the necessary mix of humor, personality, speed and professionalism that you need in order to succeed online.

And if Hillary and a transportation agency can do it, you can too.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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